Bishop's Column

In Debate over Immigrants’ Health Care, a Lesson from ‘Les Miserables’

Jean Valjean stands between two police officers, caught red-handed with silver stolen from a bishop’s table. Valjean is a convict, and the bishop had welcomed him as a guest and a friend, when no one else would. The bishop’s kindness was rewarded with deceit.

Now Valjean’s life is in the bishop’s hands. With a word he could be sent back to prison, probably for life. His fate hangs in the balance as he waits for the bishop to act. He searches for kindness in the bishop’s eyes.

He is awestruck the bishop holds out two silver candlesticks: "My friend," he tells Valjean, "you forgot I gave you these, also."

With an act of kindness, Valjean’s life is spared. He is freed. Later, when the policemen have left, the bishop tells him that he must "use this precious silver, to become an honest man."

I’ve been thinking about this scene from Les Miserables a lot lately. As many of you know, proposals have recently been made to end our state’s funding of prenatal care for pregnant illegal immigrants and their unborn children, the repeal of the so-called CHIP legislation. As lives hang in the balance, the Lord is calling us to love with the mercy of Les Miserables’ kind bishop.

Like Jean Valjean, these women have acted unlawfully—they’ve immigrated to America without the proper documentation. And some Nebraskans, moved by legitimate concerns for safety or national security, will see this as the decisive factor in the situation.

They will argue that society should not show such mercy to those who break immigration laws. From their perspective, assisting illegal immigrants – even by acting for the good health of their unborn children – is simply a way of rewarding illegal conduct.

National security and the rule of law are real and legitimate concerns. But so are children in need of health care living here in Nebraska. Providing prenatal care is the right thing to do for them.

Providing prenatal care is also the right thing to do for their parents – even though, like Jean Valjean, they have broken the law.

Les Miserables is fiction, but it illustrates a profound truth. Valjean’s story shows that there is more to life than strict justice and the rule of law.

God shows mercy to each of us, with the expectation that we will use our second chances to do good. And he expects us, in turn, to show the same mercy to others.

When the bishop gave Valjean his candlesticks, he was not rewarding theft. He was giving the thief an opportunity to take a better path. Despite Jean’s criminal act, the bishop saw something in him that suggested he could forge a better future if given the chance. He saw the thief’s potential "to become an honest man."

When it comes to helping undocumented immigrants with prenatal care, my brother bishops and I believe in helping women who want to do the right thing for their children. Like the bishop who saw Jean Valjean’s potential for moral reform, we see the potential of these women.

By seeking prenatal care, mothers are already demonstrating their love and responsibility. We should support these qualities, just as the bishop supported Valjean’s capacity to live a virtuous life.

We do not want to encourage illegal immigration, any more than the bishop in Les Miserables wanted to encourage Jean Valjean’s theft.

We do, however, want to encourage loving, responsible parenting. Denying medical assistance coverage for prenatal care would send the wrong message to these parents – who are already facing difficult circumstances, in a culture hostile to life.

Our immigration law is broken, and needs comprehensive and serious reform. But our culture is even more broken, especially in its devaluing of motherhood and the unborn. As we strive to fix our immigration policies, we must avoid measures that will worsen these cultural problems.

Instead, like the bishop who forgave Jean Valjean, we should show mercy to illegal immigrants in a way that brings forth what is best in them. We can begin by supporting their desire to raise healthy children.

I urge you to join me in contacting our state legislators, asking them to support prenatal care for all who are impoverished and not to repeal the current policy.

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Bishop Conley

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