Welcoming the Stranger: Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus Speaks Out on DACA

Sister Simone Campbell

Sister Simone Campbell is perhaps best known to many Americans as the most prominent of the Nuns on the Bus, who have criscrossed America since 2012, bringing attention to healthcare, immigration issues, and gaps in the social structure that affect the most poor and vulnerable. But Sister Simone, as she’s most often called, is also a seasoned attorney and lobbyist who is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby based in D.C.

In NETWORK’s statement on Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), Sister Simone, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, said that while some Republican leaders have called for congressional action for immigration reform, Republicans in the House and Senate “have willfully refused to address our broken immigration system to date.”

When I spoke to her last week, she had just come from a meeting “on the hill with Democratic leadership” about DACA. We discussed immigration reform, what the end of DACA might mean, and how to speak about immigration across the political divide.


Kaya Oakes: Immigration reform is complex. What is the best way for those of us who support DACA to organize and change the system?

Sister Simone Campbell: That’s the $64,000 question. If we’re supportive of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and only principally know the U.S. as their home, and if we believe they add to our community, [then we need] to speak up for them and say that we as a nation are better having them.

There are two different bills right now in the House. In the Senate, there’s the Dream Act, which has been introduced before. It’s the effort to legalize their status so there would, after a bunch of years, be a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. From my perspective as a person of faith but also as a person of this nation, I think we shouldn’t have two levels of residence. We shouldn’t have basically folks in the shadows.

Everyone should be on a path to becoming a citizen if they wish to. The undermining of what it means to be a resident in our nation for me is huge and worrisome. The Constitution doesn’t say “we the citizens,” it says “we the people.” As a citizen, I want to uphold the Constitution and honor the dignity of all people who live here—which is mixing my faith and patriotism. People can let it be known they want faster citizenship. They want this thing fixed.

Now there is another bill that some Republicans have submitted that is similar to the Dream Act but not as good. Some of the differences are things like the age limit when they came to the U.S. The bill some Republicans are on says they have to be under 16. Some of the other differences are that the requirements for moving to citizenship are much more onerous and would take a lot longer time. The Dream Act itself says that you have to be a dreamer for at least eight years, this conditional period, before you can apply for permanent residence. The minimum after permanent residence is five years to citizenship. It’s a long, arduous process with either bill, but the Republicans’ would take even longer.

One difficulty many who support immigration reform feel is how to communicate with people who oppose it. What should we say to those who say people should just get in “line” for legal immigration? We have a number of undocumented students at Berkeley where I teach, and the criticism they often get is “you took somebody’s place and you should have just applied for legal immigration.” How do we talk to people who think that way?

The simplest thing is there is no “line.” There is no line that works for people, and this is one of the big problems. The DREAM Act is not sufficient to fix our system. We have a system created in the 1960s, tweaked in ’94, and it’s not a 21st-century immigration policy. So it would have been really nice if they could have stood in line, but there’s no line. There’s no way.

Sometimes I talk about how our economic policies in Latin America have created forced migration, principally because of the change in the value of crops and the capacity to make your living on the land—which is what people had done for centuries in Mexico and Latin America. Our trade agreements undercut that, which then created a huge dislocation. Those trade agreements are great for manufacturing and industry, but they’re not good for agricultural workers. That’s why we had the big influx in the ’90s, because of NAFTA. And that flow has basically stopped.

The fact is that the second most important source of external revenue for Mexico are the remittances that folks send back. We have Sisters in Mexico, and they’ve tried to create micro enterprises where people don’t have to leave. They tried to get Mexican government funding for it, and the Mexican officials said “oh no, we couldn’t do that because the remittances are so important for the people in the countryside to survive.” This is a complex issue, but some of it is our policies that created the forced migration.

We have to deal with the 21st-century consequences of our 20th-century trade stuff. That’s what this is about, consequences. These are victims of our trade policy. In many ways, people who feel put upon by immigrants in our nation are victims too. That’s some of the Trump anger reality where people feel powerless. What I do when I meet these people who are pro-Trump, anti-immigrant, is to try to help them see what power they do have, how they can make a difference, and how immigrants aren’t different than them.

What are the Catholic and moral arguments for immigration? With the whole blowup with Bannon saying Catholic churches need “illegal aliens,” and how fast the bishops responded, how can moral and religious arguments help with immigration reform?

It’s very clear that the teachings of our faith are to welcome the immigrant, to care for those at the margins, to respond to the needs of the stranger. All the gospel stories are about that whether it’s the Samaritan woman at the well or the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were strangers and aliens. It’s abundantly clear from our scriptures.

The arguments don’t make a difference because the question is: Am I able to have compassion for people who have a different experience from my own, and can I put down my own fear and understand someone else’s fear, and someone else’s hope? It’s not just fear, it gets linked with hope. Because often immigration happens not just because of the economic dislocation I talked about before, but it’s also a consequence of global television, where we have exported our fairly unrealistic TV programs that demonstrate an idealized life in the United States. When you combine hungry people desperate to support their families with a vision of hope just like our immigrant parents did however many years ago when they came, people are going to come.

What we need, what faith calls me to, is a compassion that understands others’ stories, not just my own. Faith calls me to know we’re in community together, and the community is much broader than just my little household. I need to understand the stories of the other as well as their needs.

What is NETWORK doing right now around DACA?

NETWORK is highly engaged on immigration. We have actions and updates on our website or people can text DACA to 877877. For those who don’t want to sign up, you can still find the stories and share the stories of immigrants. And ask people. What we’ve discovered is that there are a lot of young DACA people you wouldn’t know about. At this meeting I [attended], there was an Asian contingent with Filipinas, Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders who were DACA recipients, and we think of it as just an issue with Mexico and Latin America. So ask people. Talk to them.