Duquesne University conference explores immigrants' health and social challenges

November 1, 2011


PITTSBURGH — As globalization makes the world more interconnected, widespread economic uncertainty and anti-immigration sentiment is creating more barriers to the movement of workers across borders and contributing to a divisive sense of "them and us."

That's according to Fr. Daniel Groody, CSC, who sums up a prevailing negative sentiment against migrant laborers in the U.S. this way: "We need immigrant labor, we just don't want immigrants."

Fr. Groody delivered the keynote address at the Sept. 29 opening of a two-day Catholic social justice conference here. The national meeting, the second annual Rita M. McGinley Symposium, was sponsored by Duquesne University's school of nursing. It drew about 200 nurses, social workers, physicians, women religious and government and nongovernment immigrant service providers. One of its primary goals was to raise awareness of the social and health challenges and vulnerabilities of immigrants from the developing world, a group that is unfamiliar with — and may be daunted by — the U.S. health care system.

Fr. Groody, who is a theologian, author and academician, directs the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. His books and documentaries challenge audiences to consider immigration as a symptom of deep imbalances in a global economy in which almost one in 20 people survive on less than $1 a day.

Right versus right 
One in every six people in the world today is a migrant, Fr. Groody said. People flee oppression, war and poverty in search of work or safe harbor only to be stopped at the borders of more affluent and politically stable nations. At its essence, the tension between migrants and their destination nations can be framed in terms of sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law and national security and human insecurity.

Social justice is about achieving the correct balance between those competing rights, Fr. Groody said. "Those that profess faith in Christ are called to make connections across national boundaries that help us see who we are as a body of Christ. We are united as a people beyond any of these constructions that define us nationally."

Fr. Groody has done much of his research in the field — principally along the U.S.-Mexican border. He said the majority of U.S. border enforcement efforts are directed at stemming the flow of economic immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Undocumented economic immigrants who succeed in entering the U.S. have very little legal protection here.

In Europe and Africa, where Fr. Groody has been turning his attention of late, the immigrant population includes a large number of political refugees, who do have some legal rights in their host nations. He's traveled to major funneling points for undocumented migrants attempting unauthorized crossings — the borders between Slovakia and Ukraine, Spain and Morocco, South Africa and other African nations, and between Caribbean countries and Haiti — to hear the harrowing stories of migrants and refugees.

Migrants and refugees, he said, are a reflection of Christ: "Hungry in their homelands, thirsty in the deserts they cross, naked after having been robbed at gunpoint down to their own clothing, sick after having drunk their own urine, imprisoned in detention centers. And, if they get here, often estranged and unwelcome." Many migrants have told him the hardest part of being a migrant is being treated without dignity and respect.

Opposing perspectives 
Fr. Groody has conducted lengthy interviews with border control agents, and he's empathized with them as well.

He related a story told to him by a U.S. border patrol agent as the two approached the fence at the Arizona-Mexico border. Several years before, the agent went in pursuit of a vehicle at the border and came under machine gun fire from its drug-running occupants. "I thought I was going to die at that moment, right there," the agent told the priest. According to Fr. Groody a very small, but growing segment of the undocumented people crossing the border from Mexico are dangerous criminals; the rest are seeking work. Fr. Groody's sympathies lie with the poor migrants, but as the agent spoke of his lingering terror,

Fr. Groody was struck by the riskiness of the agent's job.

Later during the priest's ride-along, the agent spotted an unusually weighted van — an indication that it might be overloaded with people — and he turned his patrol car around to investigate. "There was a cloud of dust and all of a sudden migrants just poured out of the van and ran in every direction," Fr. Groody said. The priest found himself silently cheering for the agent who was chasing down the runners. Fr. Groody said he checked himself on that impulse when he saw the prayer missal with a family photo from a baptism tucked inside that had been left in haste on the back seat of the van.

Fr. Groody said that experience led him to seek out different views on immigration. He divides perspectives on immigration in the U.S. into six major camps as follows:

Vigilantes — This group composed mostly of Western state ranchers want to close the borders to undocumented migrants, and they define immigration in terms of personal property rights.

Department of Homeland Security — Charged with ensuring that terrorists and undocumented migrants do not enter the U.S., members of this group enforce the nation's right to sovereign borders.

Political leaders — This group creates civil laws and federal policies to protect citizens and manage resources. In some cases, this perspective is underpinned by a desire to protect European-derived "American culture" from the introduction of other social and cultural influences not now part of the mainstream.

Corporations — In the interest of maximizing profits, corporations may look to immigrants as a cheap labor pool or as a source of highly skilled labor for hard-to-fill technical and scientific jobs. This group makes the case for economic rights and an unfettered market.

Church leaders — The Catholic Church frames its stance on immigration in terms of natural rights given by God, and it defends the rights of individuals to find productive work to feed and clothe their families. Care of the vulnerable is at the heart of Catholic religious tradition. The Catholic Church does not say that borders must be open; rather it supports a path to earned citizenship.

Human rights organizations — This group frames immigration in terms related to economic and social justice and human dignity.

Nurses' role
Where do nurses fit into all of this?

Fr. Timothy S. Godfrey, SJ, a public health nurse who studies health access and health disparities in immigrant populations, told the symposium audience that nurses are in a good position to advocate improving health care access for medically underserved immigrants. Fr. Godfrey is a member of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"Our nursing code of ethics talks about the dignity of all people regardless of station in life and that nurses must be advocates for the equitable distribution of health care on the local, national and international level," he said.

Nurses' advocacy for patients shouldn't stop at the bedside, Fr. Godfrey said. "We need to challenge ourselves, our peers, as well as the institutions in which we work to continually assess (whether) we are providing adequate health care, culturally sensitive care to people who are coming to us."

In several panel discussions, nurses, academicians and immigrant advocates and service providers described how differences in cultures can lead to mistrust and misunderstanding. Laura Macia-Vergara said that health providers are an essential part of the immigrant's support network, but they don't always approach interactions that way. For a research project at the University of Pittsburgh, Macia-Vergara examined the legal grievances of immigrants in Allegheny County, Pa. She said one Latina mother was shocked to receive a high bill for tests a pediatrician recommended for her children. The woman wrongly assumed her insurance would cover the charges and did not realize it was her responsibility to ask about coverage.

Lenore Resick, who holds the chair in community outreach at the Duquesne school of nursing, described the health opinion research she conducted with 12 Russian women who had emigrated to Pittsburgh in midlife.

One interview subject said she was surprised to feel so marginalized. "I didn't expect in the U.S. to feel like a zero," she told Resick. Another said, "American people trust doctors, we do not trust anyone in Russia." Resick said members of the group eschewed cancer screenings as "looking for trouble" and preferred to treat diseases and illnesses themselves. Addressing the health providers in the room, Resick said, "The implication is we need to build trust."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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