Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 10:40 pm | Updated: 7:38 am, Thu Jan 21, 2016.
New Mexico’s three Catholic bishops said Wednesday that certain members of their flock question them for engaging in political issues, but they feel morally obligated to speak on important topics facing the state and its most vulnerable residents.
“Immigration, workers’ rights, the sanctity of life, these are the issues,” Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe told about 30 legislators who attended the bishops’ annual prayer breakfast for lawmakers.
And so Wester, along with Bishops Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces and James Wall of Gallup, endorsed continuation of a law that allows undocumented immigrants living in New Mexico to obtain a state driver’s license.
“So many immigrants are fleeing real danger, death, persecution, abject poverty,” Wester said. Immigrants who are working in New Mexico help the state economy, taking back-breaking jobs that Americans won’t do, he said.
“Welcoming the stranger is our mindset,” Wester said.
The bishops say they support a driver’s license bill that the state Senate approved last year 35-5. That measure later died in the House of Representatives. It would provide for a driver’s license compliant with the federal Real ID Act for citizens who want it. A secondary driver’s license would be available for immigrants and U.S. citizens who do not want the Real ID-compliant license.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez tried for the past five years to repeal the law allowing immigrants to receive a driver’s license. This session, though, Martinez says she will support a bill for some immigrants to receive driving privilege cards, a system already in place in Utah and Nevada.
The bishops also support a proposed constitutional amendment to expand funding for early childhood education for infants and children up to age 5. Gains from the state’s $15 billion land grant endowment would help fund early childhood education, but the measure is controversial. Martinez and numerous Democrats in the Legislature oppose it, saying they want to preserve the endowment for generations to come.
Cantú said he fields questions from Catholics about why the bishops are involved in this political debate. He said fighting poverty and helping children get off to a good start in school are topics for everyone, not just legislators at the Capitol.
“These are moral issues, not simply political issues,” Cantú said.
In keeping with their theme of supporting those who are vulnerable or unprotected, the bishops said they favor legislation that would outlaw late-term abortions. “There is no one more defenseless than the child in the womb,” Wall said.
Lastly, the bishops oppose an initiative by Martinez to prohibit labor unions from charging fees to those who decline to join the union, saying it would hurt organizing efforts of workers.
“We support the right to unionize and bargain. It is important to respect the dignity of the worker,” Wester said. The Republican-controlled House is likely to bar compulsory union fees, but the Democrat-controlled Senate probably will reject the bill.
Martinez has not attended the bishops’ prayer breakfast since 2013. That year, now-retired Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan advocated for immigrant driver’s licenses by reading a letter from a dying teenager who said the license law had helped his family.