(Cont’d from March 19th Message) These 11 million undocumented people did not just arrive overnight. It happened over the last 20 years. 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!
I believe strongly in personal responsibility and accountability. But I have to question why we are punishing only the undocumented workers — ordinary parents who came here seeking a better life for their children? Why aren’t we punishing the businesses that hired them, or the government officials who didn’t enforce our laws? It just does not seem right to me.
What about us? 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. 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.
Now, we’ve made deportation a kind of “mandatory sentence” for anyone caught without proper papers. We’re not interested in mitigating circumstances or taking into account “hard cases.” Illegal immigration may be the only crime for which we don’t tolerate plea bargains or lesser sentences. But I don’t think that is fair, either.
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.
There’s a lot of fear and frustration in this country today. 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: We may need this new generation of immigrants — to be our neighbors, to be our friends, to help us to renew the “soul” of our nation.
There’s a balance of law and love we can strike here. The immigrants that I know are people who have faith in God, who love their families, and who aren’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice. Most have come to this country for the same reasons that immigrants have always come to this country — to seek refuge from violence and poverty; to make a better life for their children. These are the kind of people we should want to be new Americans. These are the people we should want to join us in the work of rebuilding this great country.
I’ve been trying to speak realistically about the moral challenges we face with immigration. I believe that we can reform 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. We need to recognize immigration is about more than a set of specific policies. Immigration is ultimately a question about America. What is America? What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and what is this country’s mission in the world?
Immigration goes to the heart of America’s identity and future as a nation. We need to commit ourselves to immigration reform that’s part of a more comprehensive renewal of the American spirit – a new sense of our national purpose and identity. Inside our nation’s Capitol building, you’ll find the statues of three Catholic priests: St. Damien of Molokai, St. Junípero Serra, and Father Eusebio Kino. There’s also a statue of a religious sister, Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence. They were all immigrants, all of them missionaries. Serra was 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 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 in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago. Pope Francis said St. Junípero was one of this country’s “founding fathers.” Most of us do not think of him as part of America’s story. We should! If we took this seriously, it could change how we understand our country’s history, identity and mission.
All people have a story they tell about their beginnings – a story about where they came from and how they got here. This “story of origins” helps them make sense of who they are as a people. Right now, the story we tell about America starts on the East Coast. We remember the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War. That story is not complete. It gives the distorted impression that America was founded as a project only of Western Europeans. It makes us assume that only immigrants from those countries really “belong,” and can claim to be called “Americans.” This misreading of history has obvious implications for our current debates. We hear warnings all the time from politicians and the media that immigration from Mexico and Latin America is somehow changing our American “identity” and “character.” What American identity are we talking about?
Long before Plymouth Rock, George Washington and the 13 colonies, long before this country even had a name, there were missionaries and explorers here from Spain and Mexico, settling the territories of what are now Florida, Texas, California, and New Mexico. The first Asians, from the Philippines, started arriving in California about 50 years before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock. The first non-indigenous language spoken in this country was not English. It was Spanish!
None of this denies that America’s laws, institutions and cultural traditions were defined and shaped by Anglo-Saxon and European ancestors. But, we can no longer afford to tell a story that excludes the rich inheritance of Latinos and Asians. Such a story cannot unite us and inspire us in an America that is changing. We need to embrace a new national narrative, a new patriotic memory — a story of our spiritual roots — a story that honors both our Catholic immigrant beginnings in the South and in the West and that honors the European 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.
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 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, 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.
May God bless you and your families and may God bless this great country.