One of the most controversial social issues of our day is the question of immigration. According to the United Nations, there are now more than 66 million displaced persons in the world.
The Catholic Church in the U.S. observes National Migration Week from January 8-14, 2017, and the World Day of Immigrants and Refugees is January 17. This is an opportunity for us to reflect on the circumstances facing immigrants, refugees, children, and victims of human trafficking. It is also an opportunity to examine our own attitudes toward migrants and to appreciate the many benefits that migrants bring to our communities.
The theme of this year’s National Migration Week is “Creating a Culture of Encounter,” reminding us of Pope Francis’ teaching that “faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others." Rather than isolate ourselves from others, Christians are called to recognize them as children of God worthy of our attention and respect.
There is no one in our country who is not descended from people who at some point migrated here from another continent. Even those whose families have been in this country for more than 10 generations ultimately have immigrant roots. In fact, even the Native American tribes are descended from immigrants. The indigenous pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas migrated from Asia by way of Siberia and Alaska thousands of years ago.
The United States of America is a better country due to the contributions of immigrants. Most of us can call to mind many people we know who are immigrants or children of immigrants. These are some of our neighbors, co-workers, classmates, fellow parishioners, relatives, and friends. They include our doctors, nurses, professors, construction workers, ranch hands, celebrities, and sports heroes.
Some of the most influential people in the U.S. have been immigrants, including Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rupert Murdoch, Hakeem Olajuwon, Manu Ginobili, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Archbishop José Gomez, and Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller. More than 40 percent of the largest U.S. companies were founded either by immigrants or by the children of immigrants. It is fair to say that this country was built by immigrants.
The Catholic Church has welcomed immigrants to the United States since the nation’s founding. Our Church has been vitally important in helping newcomers to integrate into American culture. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has the largest private refugee resettlement agency in the United States. Our migration and refugee services have helped to settle more than one million refugees in the U.S. since 1975.
Our Catholic perspective on migrants and refugees is rooted in Scripture and in our Theology. The Bible speaks repeatedly of the migration experience. Abraham and Sarah were inspired by God to move from Ur of the Chaldeans (modern Iraq) and settle in the land of Canaan (modern Israel). Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Holy Land. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were temporarily refugees in the foreign land of Egypt in order to escape the violence of King Herod.
Pope Francis points out that “the phenomenon of migration is not unrelated to salvation history, but rather a part of that history. One of God’s commandments is connected to it: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex 22:21); ‘Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Deut 10:19).” (Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2017)
Jesus teaches us in the Gospel that, in welcoming the stranger, we are actually welcoming Christ himself, who will say in the Last Judgment, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) Sometimes Christ visits us in the disguise of the immigrant in need. In the end, we will be judged according to how we have responded to him.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that human beings have a natural human right to emigrate, and that immigrants ought “to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying out civic burdens.” (CCC, 2241)
In an address he gave at the Vatican on May 24, 2013, Pope Francis said, “The Church is Mother, and her motherly attention is expressed with special tenderness and closeness to those who are obliged to flee their own country and exist between rootlessness and integration. This tension destroys people. Christian compassion — this ‘suffering with’ compassion — is expressed first of all in the commitment to obtain knowledge of the events that force people to leave their homeland, and where necessary, to give voice to those who cannot manage to make their cry of distress and oppression heard. They are all elements that dehumanize and must push every Christian and the whole community to concrete attention.”
terrorism, all nations must exercise vigilance in protecting their sovereignty and security. Every country has the right and responsibility to maintain the integrity of its borders and the rule of law. Those who enter a country, seek refugee settlement, or apply for immigration status, should be carefully screened in order to protect the common good. Governments should use the best available intelligence and background checks. However, enforcement is not the only solution. Our Church is not in favor of an “enforcement only” immigration policy.
The Catholic bishops of the U.S. have long supported comprehensive and humane immigration reform. This is not an “open borders” policy, but rather one which would include components such as these:
- An opportunity for those who are living illegally in the U.S. to transition to legal status, requiring applicants to pass background checks, pay a fine, establish eligibility for resident status, and demonstrate good moral character;
- the centrality of family reunification, increasing the number of family visas available and reducing family reunification waiting times;
- 4 a temporary worker program that is responsive to the needs of the economy, and
- 4 respect for human rights and due process for immigrants.
We support an enforcement of immigration laws that focuses first and foremost on dangerous and criminal activities, targeting primarily the drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would-be terrorists. Enforcement should avoid racial or ethnic profiling. Unauthorized immigrants should not be detained for long periods of time without legal representation.
The economy of the United States depends upon a certain amount of immigrant labor, but in the current system the number of available visas for workers is not sufficient to meet the country’s demand for foreign laborers. For example, when the state of Georgia recently enacted a tougher immigration law, it led to a shortage of needed laborers, and crops were left rotting in the fields. This triggered an estimated loss of about $140 million in agricultural losses in that state. It would make more sense for governments to grant enough work visas for the workers that are needed.
We believe that nations should work together to address the root causes that lead to migration. Those countries that are losing their citizens to emigration need to address the injustices and violence that cause their people to despair and leave, so that people may have a chance to prosper in their own homelands and support their families with dignity and peace.
We belong to the same Church no matter where we are from. Our Catholic identity is not based on a passport, but on our faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church in the United States will continue to seek to provide pastoral care and charitable assistance to new immigrants. We welcome immigrants to participate actively, share their personal gifts, and receive the sacraments regularly in our local parishes.
In three cities in the Diocese of San Angelo, Catholic agencies offer assistance in processing immigration paperwork:
For more information about the position of the U.S. bishops regarding immigration, please go to www.usccb.org and search for “immigration.”
- Nelly Diaz is the supervisor of Abilene Immigration Services and San Angelo Immigration Services at 325-212- 6192.
- Ann Marie Garcia is the contact person at Catholic Charities of Odessa at 432-332-1387.