Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. (left) listens as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-FL., speaks during a meeting with U.S. bishops on Capitol Hill in Washington Sept. 17. They discussed a range of topics including healthcare and immigration reform. On the immigration front, Bishop da Cunha said the bishops raised objections that families are being separated. Meanwhile, in dealing with concerns over education, he explained the bishops support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
Interviewed Sept. 18 at his office in Newark, Bishop da Cunha, who noted that he was the only bishop there from the northeastern section of the country, said the bishops declared their principles on immigration, healthcare, education and housing. Most of the lawmakers were "on the same page with us," Bishop da Cunha pointed out.
Regarding the heated debate over healthcare reform, Bishop da Cunha said the bishops emphasized that there should be no federal funding of abortion and that medical personnel not be forced to perform abortions. He said the bishops also brought to the senators' attention that, under any proposal on healthcare reform, immigrants in this country legally should not have to wait five years for coverage. "That is not fair," Bishop da Cunha said.
At a briefing for reporters after their morning of meetings with senators and then with the groups representing congressional Hispanics, two of the bishops said they were optimistic that looming healthcare legislation will not fund abortions and will include conscience protections for healthcare workers. Those have been two major areas of concern for the Catholic Church as the legislation is being shaped.
Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of San Antonio, TX, said the group of Hispanic bishops told the members of Congress that, in addition to not funding abortions and including a conscience clause, their concern is that healthcare reform must offer a universal plan in which everyone is able to participate and that would provide care from conception to natural death.
He said they want the plan to include all immigrants, whatever their "legal" status, though the bishops recognize that it's probably not politically viable to expect undocumented immigrants to be covered in this bill.
"Everybody should have a way to participate," Archbishop Gomez said.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, CA, said that, besides not providing government-funded healthcare to illegal immigrants, as President Barack Obama promised in his address to Congress Sept. 9, there are concerns that even legal immigrants might be left out of the system.
The exclusion of government supported insurance for undocumented immigrants is an issue with which the bishops might disagree, but could concede as a political necessity, Bishop Soto said. However, he stated that the legislation "has to include, at a minimum, some kind of safety net for the undocumented," particularly if the goal of a nationwide healthcare reform plan is to improve the overall health of society.
"We realize it's a very contentious issue," Bishop Soto said, "but there has to be some kind of a safety net." If undocumented immigrants cannot participate in health insurance, he added, "they will end up in emergency rooms."
(Editor's note: Ward Miele, managing editor, contributed to this article.)