As the daughter of immigrant farmworkers living in Texas near the Mexican border, Bishop Minerva Carcano of the United Methodist Church has seen people risk their lives and those of their children in desperation to find work in this country.
"I have seen it all my life because I grew up on the border," she said, referring to the dirty, exhausted and starving border-crossers, fleeing on foot in the desert into the United States. As a minister, Carcano has volunteered with relief teams that wait for those who are captured and dumped off by the busload back in Mexico. In a recent interview she spoke about their heartbreaking suffering and recounted how volunteers — giving what little comfort they could provide — washed feet and treated "the most horrible foot blisters I have ever seen."
Now the head of the national church’s Interagency Task Force on Immigration, Carcano addressed the matter at a Honolulu forum held last week. Carcano served as keynote speaker on immigration reform at Harris United Methodist Church at a forum co-sponsored by Faith Action for Community Equity and the Hawaii Coalition for Immigration Reform.
"We are today a country in need of the reformation of our heart" on top of the improvement of laws to treat 11 million undocumented immigrants with "justice and simple humanity," Carcano said.
Among the reform efforts in the works: Senate Bill 744, passed in late June, would allow immigrants in the process of obtaining citizenship to work, travel and live in the U.S. without fear of deportation, and increase border security, among other things. The controversial bill awaits passage by the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives.
Carcano said to effect a change in the nation’s collective heart, individuals must first view the matter on a spiritual level.
"We’re treating immigrants as if they were property; we’re treating them unfairly in terms of how we pay them or fail to pay them," she said. "We don’t treat them as if they were of sacred worth. And we believe that all children of God are of sacred worth — it’s inherent in us."
Carcano, who serves as bishop of the UMC’s California-Pacific Conference, added, "And for government and the economic world, we would at least expect them to treat them with fairness and justice." From 2004 to 2012, Carcano served as bishop of the Desert Southwest Conference, with a ministry focused on immigration problems.
"Everything you see about how we’re treating immigrants, it’s evil, it’s sinful. As Christians we are called to welcome the immigrant, to treat them as if they were native born," according to Leviticus 19:34, she said. In Matthew, Chapter 25, there are passages in which "Jesus says if you welcome the stranger, you welcome me. … Treat them as if they were one of us," Carcano said. "So when we treat the immigrant unfairly and treat them without care, compassion, justice, love, that’s going to deteriorate the character of our Christian community. And it’s going to affect us and shape us. (We’re) going to be a church that’s very different from the one Jesus envisioned us to be."
"That anti-immigrant spirit has been in the country (and in many churches) since the beginning of the nation’s history. I’m ashamed to say, we … tend to absorb the culture of society rather than holding up a more just way," Carcano said, noting that some Methodist churches have been a part of that group.
While Hawaii is not free of incidents of racism, Carcano lauded the immigrant-related efforts of churches in the islands. "I do find the churches of Hawaii to be a great example … in their deep commitment to be diverse, multicultural and reach out to the poor, reach out to the immigrant, and they are to be commended."
She added, "I would venture to say that a great majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today are here because of economic reasons" that were predominantly caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), adopted in 1992. When U.S. companies found cheaper labor in other parts of the world, it left thousands of workers unemployed and destitute, "discarded like old broken-down machines," Carcano said. The controversial NAFTA policy, according to some analysts, cost 2 million Mexican corn farmers their livelihood and prompted many to move to the U.S. to survive, she said.
A related matter of concern, Carcano said, is the development of large detention centers as a big business, initiated by the Corrections Corp. of America and the GEO Group. These companies are making substantial profits to run these detention centers for the ever-increasing number of immigrants, Carcano said, citing research conducted by a United Methodist Church task force.
Carcano said a few of these large corporations have pushed hard for the passage of anti-immigration bills that will keep the centers filled, such as the "infamous" Senate Bill 1070, which passed in Arizona is 2010. The Methodist Council of Bishops and other ecumenical groups have successfully lobbied governors to refrain from hiring or investing in these corporations, "but we need to be vigilant," she added.