Immigration in America

Ted Bergh reading to immigrant children at Su Casa’s summer enrichment camp.

In Immigration and the Next America, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez devotes a chapter to how American Catholics should approach immigration informed by tradition, scripture, and the American Catholic experience. Written in 2013, the book is timely in developing a Catholic understanding of recent immigration actions including enhanced enforcement, the travel ban, and separation of families at the border. The book also provides context for the role of Catholic Charities’ programs that serve vulnerable immigrants and refugees.

Let’s explore four points from Archbishop Gomez’s book.

First as American Catholics, our immigration experience should prompt us to engage in immigration reform. The American Catholic Church is a church of immigrants. Catholic immigration begins with 17th and 18th century Spanish and French Catholic explorers and continues in the 19th and early 20th century with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Recent immigrants are mainly Catholic Mexican and Central American immigrants.

The newest wave of immigrants are not the first to experience intolerance and indifference to the economic or violent situations forcing their migration. That is the history of Catholic immigration to the United States. Catholic immigrants have overcome past rejection to rise to economic independence and civic responsibility. Catholic immigration history and experience recommends welcoming current arrivals with the human dignity and social justice that are basic to our Catholic belief.

Archbishop Gomez writes, “We also need to keep in mind that our faith requires that we address issues – not as Democrats or Republicans, or as conservatives or liberals – but as believers who are aware that we are accountable to God. As always, the best service Catholics can offer to our country as citizens is to make political judgements and actions that are based on our religious convictions and moral values.”

The second point to reflect on is that the Church’s interest in immigration reform is “rooted in our religious identity and faith commitment as Catholics.” While the Church’s teaching on immigration is just a small part of a larger body of social doctrine on teaching, it reflects our “practical experience of caring for pilgrims, refugees, exiles and migrants.”

Furthermore, Catholic Social Doctrine is universal, consistent with American values and shared by our neighbors of other faiths and those who don’t profess any faith. He goes on to write, “Our principles lead us to seek justice and the common good, to defend the innocent and lift up the weak, and to promote freedom and dignity of the human person.”

The third point from Archbishop Gomez is that “we care for immigrants because Jesus commanded us to. Catholics must defend immigrants if we are going to be worthy of the name Christian.”

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that shortly after Jesus was born his family was forced into exile by King Herod and by default became refugees. Today, more than 65 million people are displaced in the world and 22 million are refugees. Not unlike the Holy family, they are forced for their homes or flee voluntarily to escape violence. “In Jesus’ ethics, our love for God can never be separated from our love of neighbor. And he told us that we must look for him – the image of God – in the least of our brothers and sisters,” Archbishop Gomez writes. “Hospitality – literally ‘love of strangers’ become a basic virtue of Jesus’ followers. To be a Christian was to practice hospitality to a stranger.”

The final point is that human rights come from God. “And what God has given, no one –
no man, no institution, no legislature or court – can ever justify denying, ” the Archbishop writes.
“The natural right to immigration flows from the basic human right to life. In Catholic teaching, if you and your family are unable to secure life’s necessity in your home country – due to political instability, economic distress, religious persecution, or other conditions that offend basic dignity –
you must be free to seek these things in another country.”

With the right to migration, comes obligations that the Catechism of the Church spells out. Immigrants must:

• Respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, and
• Obey the laws of the country that receives them, and to assist in carrying out civic burdens.

Catholic Social doctrine on immigration also recognizes that governments have the duty to control migration into their country and defend their borders.

Archbishop Gomez deals with the difficult and often polarizing immigration issue by speaking from a faith-based Catholic perspective. During these uncertain times, all of us would benefit by prayerfully increasing our awareness on social teaching as we engage respectfully in civil discourse on this issue.

I invite you to  learn more about the work of Catholic Charities in serving unaccompanied minors, immigration legal services, refugee resettlement and the Su Casa Hispanic Center. Thank you for your prayers and support.

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