In place of my usual weekly letter, I want to share with you a speech, recently given in Washington, D.C., by Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles on the controversial topic of immigration. Because it’s long, it’s been edited for brevity and will appear in two parts.
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. I was born in 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. I love this country and I believe in America’s providential place in history. I am inspired by this nation’s historic commitment to sharing the fruits of our liberty and prosperity and opening our arms to welcome the stranger and the refugee. I know that I am not alone in feeling — I feel like our great country has lost its way on this issue of immigration. In my opinion, immigration is the human rights test of our generation.
You invited a pastor here today — not a politician. I have great respect for the vocation of politics; it is a noble calling, a vocation to serve justice and the common good. A pastor takes a different kind of approach to political “realities.” For me, immigration is about people not politics. 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 someone — not a something.
In the Church, in the good times and in the bad, we always stay together. We can never abandon our family. That’s why the Church has always been at the center of our debates about immigration, and always will be. We cannot leave our family alone, without a voice. Practically speaking, there’s 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. There is simple reason for that: Immigrants are the Church. The Catholic Church in this country has always been an immigrant Church. America has always been a nation of immigrants that thrives on the energy, creativity and faith of peoples from every corner of the world. In Los Angeles, we have about 5 million Catholics, from every part of the world, every race, nationality and ethnic background. Among my people in Los Angeles — we have about 1 million who are living in this country without authorization or documentation. So, these issues of immigration take on a daily urgency for me. I want to share my perspective on where we are at right now, because I am hopeful that we are at a moment when we can begin to make true progress in addressing these issues of immigration and our national identity.
I want to start by talking about the reality of immigration right now in our country, the “human face” of immigration. I want to follow that by talking specifically about what I believe is the most important moral issue — how we should respond to the 11 million undocumented persons living within our borders. I want to propose a solution today; and, finally, I want to talk about immigration and the “next America.” Our country has been divided over immigration many times before in our history. We are a nation of immigrants. But immigration to this country has never been easy. New nationalities and ethnic groups have seldom been welcomed with open arms. With each new wave of immigration have come suspicion, resentment and backlash. It’s no different with today’s immigrants. 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. 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.
A vast underclass has grown up at the margins of our society, and we just seem to accept it as a society. We have millions of men and women living as perpetual servants — working for low wages in our restaurants, fields, factories, gardens, homes and hotels. These men and women have no security against sickness, disability or old age. In many cases they can’t even open up a checking account or get a driver’s license. They serve as our nannies and baby-sitters. But their own children can’t get jobs or go to college — because they were brought to this country illegally by their parents. Right now the only thing we have that resembles a national immigration “policy” is 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 previous president deported more than anyone in American history — more than 2.5 million people in eight years! The sad truth is that the vast majority of those we’re 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. Nobody disputes that we should be deporting violent criminals. Nobody! People have a right to live in safe neighborhoods. But what’s the public policy purpose that’s served by taking away some little girl’s dad or some little boy’s mom? This is what we are doing every day. We’re breaking up families and punishing kids for the mistakes of their parents.
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. That’s what is going on in communities across the country.
In Los Angeles, we have children in our Catholic schools who don’t want to leave their homes in the morning because they are afraid they will come home to find their parents gone, deported. As a pastor, I do not think it is an acceptable moral response for us to say, “too bad, it’s their own fault,” or “this is what they get for breaking our laws.” They are still people, still children of God, no matter what they did wrong! And when you look into the eyes of a child whose parent has been deported — and I have had to do that more than I want to — you realize how inadequate all our excuses are.
There is an important role here for you and for me — for all of us who believe in God, because we are the ones who know that God does not judge us according to our political positions. Jesus tells us that we are judged by our love, by our mercy. The mercy we expect from God, we need to show to others. Jesus said, “I was a stranger,” an immigrant. He did not distinguish between legal and illegal.
We need to help our neighbors to see that people don’t 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 can’t lose sight of their humanity without losing our own. What can we do about the 11 million who are here without authorization? 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. With that in mind, I want to share how I think about this issue as a pastor. (To be continued)