Below are excerpts and link to the full text from a talk on the current immigration dilemma by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. It was given at a Napa Institute conference in Washington, D.C. on March 8. Questions for thought/discussion are included as well.
Immigration is close to my heart and immigrants have always been at the heart of my ministry — for nearly 40 years as a priest and now as a bishop.
Immigration is also deeply personal for me. I was born in Monterrey, Mexico and I came to this country as an immigrant. I have relatives who have been living in what is now Texas since 1805, when it was still under Spanish rule. So my immigrant roots run deep. I have been a naturalized American citizen for more than 20 years now.
For me, immigration is about people not politics. For me, behind every number is a human soul with his or her own story. A soul who is created by God and loved by God. A soul who has a dignity and a purpose in God’s creation. Every immigrant is a child of God — a somebody, not a something.
In the Church, we say, ¡Somos familia! Immigrants are our family. We say, “En las buenas y en las malas.” In the good times and in the bad. We always stay together.
We can never abandon our family. That is why the Church has always been at the center of our debates about immigration. And we always will be. We cannot leave our family alone, without a voice.
Practically speaking there is no single institution in American life that has more day-to-day experience with immigrants than the Catholic Church — through our charities, ministries, schools and parishes.
And there is simple reason for that. Immigrants are the Church.
The Human Face of Immigration
Our country has been divided over immigration many times before in our history.
We are a nation of immigrants, it is true. But immigration to this country has never been easy. New nationalities and ethnic groups have seldom been welcomed with open arms.
The truth is that with each new wave of immigration have come suspicion, resentment and backlash. Think about the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese. It is no different with today’s immigrants. We need to keep that perspective.
But it is also true that our politics today is more divided today than I can ever remember. We seem to have lost the ability to show mercy, to see the “other” as a child of God. And so we are willing to accept injustices and abuses that we should never accept.
That is what has happened on immigration.
By our inaction and indifference we have created a quiet human rights tragedy that is playing out in communities all across this great country.
Right now the only thing we have that resembles a national immigration “policy” is all focused on deporting these people who are within our borders without proper papers.
Despite what we hear in the mainstream media, deportations did not begin with this new administration. We have needed a moratorium on deportations of non-violent immigrants for almost a decade.
The sad truth is that the vast majority of those we are deporting are not violent criminals. In fact, up to one-quarter are mothers and fathers that our government is seizing and removing from ordinary households.
We need to remember that. When we talk about deportation as a policy — remember that we are talking about souls not statistics.
Most of the 11 million undocumented people have been living in this country for five years or more. Two-thirds have been here for at least a decade. Almost half are living in homes with a spouse and children.
So what that means is that when you have a policy that is only about deportations — without reforming the underlying immigration system — you are going to cause a human rights nightmare.
We need to help our neighbors to see that people do not cease to be human, they do not cease to be our brothers and sisters — just because they have an irregular immigration status.
No matter how they got here, no matter how frustrated we are with our government, we cannot lose sight of their humanity — without losing our own.
The 11 Million (undocumented immigrants)
My friends, it is long past time for us to address this issue. Here again — as men and women of faith, we have an important role to play. We need to help our leaders find a solution that is realistic, but that is also just and compassionate.
These 11 million undocumented people did not just arrive overnight. It happened over the last 20 years. And it happened because our government — at every level — failed to enforce our immigration laws.
This is a difficult truth that we have to accept. We are a nation of laws. But for many reasons and for many years, our nation chose not to enforce our immigration laws.
Of course, that doesn’t justify people breaking these laws. But it does explain how things got this way.
Government and law enforcement officials looked the other way because American businesses demand “cheap” labor — and lots of it.
Now, I believe strongly in personal responsibility and accountability. But I have to question why the only ones we are punishing are the undocumented workers themselves — ordinary parents who came here seeking a better life for their children.
Why aren’t we punishing the businesses who hired them, or the government officials who didn’t enforce our laws? It just does not seem right to me.
And what about us? It seems to me that we share some responsibility. All of us “benefit” every day from an economy built on undocumented labor. These are the people who clean our offices and build our homes and harvest the food we eat.
There is plenty of blame to go around. And that means there is a lot of opportunity to show mercy. Mercy is not the denial of justice. Mercy is the quality by which we carry out our justice. Mercy is the way we can move forward.
I am not proposing that we “forgive and forget.” Those who are here without authorization have broken our laws. And the rule of law must be respected. So there needs to be consequences when our laws are broken.
Why don’t we require the undocumented to a pay a fine, to do community service? We should ask them to prove that they are holding a job and paying taxes and are learning English. This seems like a fair punishment to me. But in addition to the punishment, we need to give them some clarity about their lives, some certainty about their status living in this country.
Most of the undocumented who are parents have children here who are citizens. They should be able to raise their children in peace, without the fear that one day we will change our minds and deport them. So we need to establish some way for them to “normalize” their status. Personally, I believe we should give them a chance to become citizens.
There’s a lot of fear and frustration in this country today. And I understand why some of it is directed at unknown people who have come in through a broken system. But I also want to suggest this to you: We may just need this new generation of immigrants — to be our neighbors, to be our friends, to help us to renew the “soul” of our nation.
Immigration and the Next America
I really do believe that we can reform of our immigration system and find a compassionate solution for those who are undocumented and forced to live in the shadows of our society. It is within our reach. But I also think we need to recognize that immigration is about more than a set of specific policies.
I believe we need to commit ourselves to immigration reform that is part of a more comprehensive renewal of the American spirit. A new sense of our national purpose and identity.
Just down the street from where we are today, just down Pennsylvania Avenue, inside our nation’s Capitol building — you will find the statues of three Catholic priests, St. Damien of Molokai, St. Junípero Serra, Father Eusebio Kino. There is also a statue of a religious sister, Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence. It is interesting. They were all immigrants, all of them missionaries.
Now, St. Junípero Serra was a Hispanic, an immigrant from Spain by way of Mexico. He was one of the founders of Los Angeles.
At a time when many denied the “humanity” of the Native peoples, Father Junípero drew up a “bill of rights” for them. He wrote that “bill of rights” — three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.
Most Americans today do not know that. But Pope Francis knew that. That’s why he canonized St. Junípero right here in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago.
Pope Francis said St. Junípero was one of this country’s “founding fathers.” And yet, most of us do not think of him as part of America’s story. We should. If we took this seriously, it would change how we understand our country’s history, identity and mission.
I believe we need to embrace a new national narrative, a new patriotic memory. We need a story of our spiritual roots — a story that honors both our Hispanic Catholic missionary and immigrant beginnings in the South and in the West and a story that honors the European Protestant founders who settled in the North and the East.
We need to tell the story of St. Junípero Serra and Thomas Jefferson. We need to tell a new story to inspire a new generation — to carry on the providential mission of America.
America has always been a nation of immigrants with a missionary soul. Our founders dreamed of a nation where men and women from every race, religion and national background could live in equality as brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Their universal vision helped make this a great nation — blessed with freedom and goodness and generosity and committed to sharing our blessings with the whole human race.
That is what’s at stake in our immigration debate — the future of this beautiful American story. Our national debate is really a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul. How we respond will measure our national character and conscience in this generation.
Thank you for allowing me to share my reflections with you today. May God bless you and your families and may God bless this great country.
+Jose Gomez Archbishop of Los Angeles