We first minister to the migrant as a human person, as our brother or sister in Christ.” Fresh from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) spring 2013 meeting in San Diego, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez spoke with St. Anthony Messenger about immigration and the role of the Catholic Church in the United States. Archbishop Gomez, chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on Migration, is one of the leading voices in the Church to speak and write about immigration, its effect on the Church as well as the United States, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
At the time of the interview, immigration reform legislation had survived contentious passage in the Senate, and then faced a difficult, uncertain fight in the House of Representatives. As the bill entered the Senate, Gomez called it “the most comprehensive change in our immigration laws in 30 years.”
As debate centered on secular issues has heated up, Archbishop Gomez and other Church leaders have framed their discussion of a path to legalization and citizenship, family unification, and other issues within a context of faith, justice, and American character and history, which, from its founding, was built by immigrants and inspired by belief in God.
“For me, our national debate about immigration is a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul,” he wrote in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
God and Country
This faith-centric framing of the immigration discussion might seem at odds with the other secular voices that focus on economics, social engineering, and politics. But looking through the prism of Catholic values helps illuminate an understanding of America’s past, present, and future. A Catholic perspective looks at the history and future of the Church in America. In both ways, it shows the immediate need for comprehensive immigration reform, especially regarding the 11.1 million current immigrants who are living here illegally.
In a statement issued during the spring 2013 meeting of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez said, “The Catholic Church in America has an important stake in the outcome of this [immigration reform] debate because we are an immigrant Church and have grown with the country for over 200 years.
“Each day in our parishes, social service programs, hospitals, and schools, we witness the human consequence of a broken immigration system. Families are separated, migrant workers are exploited, and our fellow human beings die in the desert. Without positive change to our immigration laws, we cannot help our brothers and sisters. Simply put, the status quo is morally unacceptable. This suffering must end.”
Archbishop Gomez is himself a United States citizen and an immigrant, the son of a physician father from Monterrey, Mexico, and a mother who was raised in San Antonio, Texas. He can trace some of his ancestry back to 1805, when what is now the state of Texas was under Spanish rule. As he spoke with St. Anthony Messenger, responding calmly and clearly to some “hot-button” questions about the Church’s involvement in the issue, he also discussed the deep personal and pastoral experiences that provide for him a unique context.
Welcoming the Immigrants
With no legal status, and other obstacles, why come? The way across the border can be perilous, the lack of English language ability daunting at best. Archbishop Gomez tells St. Anthony Messenger the simple truth: “Most of the people who come from Latin America are looking for a job. They come to improve their lives, the way that immigrants came in the past.”
Indeed, many Americans today can trace their roots back to other poor but hopeful people fleeing poverty and oppression, including religious persecution, in search of a better life. For them, lack of education and little or no ability to speak English were also stumbling blocks. But for them, too, determination and, often, faith provided fuel to succeed.
As the United States has welcomed immigrants and benefited from their work, so has the Catholic Church. Many of today’s American Catholics can point to contributions made by their forebears in church buildings, schools, hospitals, and programs, as well as the positive impact stemming from Catholic values active in society.
This tradition has continued with the latest and largest wave of immigrants, most of whom have come from Latin America, especially Mexico, and the majority of whom are Catholic. Their large numbers have rejuvenated many parishes throughout the country and increased the overall number of Catholics in the United States.
“They have a deep faith in God,” Archbishop Gomez explains. “They have Catholic values. They come here to work, which is an important value. They have a great sense of community, too. Their lives are based on community.”
Welcoming recent arrivals has long been a concern of the Church. So, too, is helping immigrants sustain and nurture their faith and encouraging them to learn skills to better assimilate and improve their lives and those of their loved ones, as well as their communities.
Immigrants have been “a constant concern for the bishops of the United States,” explains Gomez, and there has been a strong effort to develop Hispanic ministries throughout the United States, as parishes have expanded with their numbers.
At the 2013 spring bishops’ meeting, says Archbishop Gomez, there was a “decided call for the faith and spiritual support for the immigrants,” as well as helping them to “learn En gush and really become active members of our society.”
The archbishop is involved with other efforts, including the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), which, among its activities, reaches out to Latino professionals in the United States.
“We have a large number of them,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. “The challenge for these young professionals is for them to continue to practice their faith. We help them to know that the Church is a family. They can continue to practice their faith and also participate in public life.”
“We want legal immigration,” Archbishop Gomez emphasizes in our interview. But, for the estimated 11.1 million people currently living in the United States illegally, there has been no line to stand in to become legal, as there has for others, such as students or those with specific professional, artistic, or athletic skills, for example.
Extreme poverty and other conditions propelled them to come to the United States, and they did so without authorization. Once here, a combination of factors, including lack of legal status, limitations with English proficiency, and low skills, opened them up to exploitation and abuse, and created an underclass of people that some have referred to as “living in the shadows.”
“Most of them came here to feed their families,” says Archbishop Gomez. “If you have education and qualifications, it’s not as difficult to get a work visa. But if you come here for menial jobs, it makes it very difficult to get a work visa. Those are the people who are more vulnerable and poor. Our first concern is for them.”
Welcoming the stranger, caring for the neediest in our midst, and showing respect for the dignity of each person are manifestations of Catholic faith in action. These values echo throughout Church leaders’ discussions of immigration issues, especially in questions Archbishop Gomez posed at a press conference at the June USCCB meeting.
“Do we want a country with a permanent underclass, without the same rights as the majority? Do we want to continue to separate children from parents, creating a generation of young US citizens who are suspicious and fearful of their government? Do we want a nation that accepts the toil and taxes of undocumented workers without offering them the protection of the law?” said Gomez. Then he provided an answer on behalf of the Catholic Church: “The answer to these questions, of course, is a resounding no.”
Some weeks later, during our own interview, Archbishop Gomez returns to the Church’s role. “We are not the ones to make the decisions,” he concedes. “But we can help our government face this issue. And we can pray, through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for our government officials to find a solution.”
Then he pauses and reflects on our immigrant sisters and brothers. “This country is becoming the reality of their dreams,” says Archbishop Gomez, the words coming quickly, almost eagerly. “They love this country.” Then his voice gathers strength. “We love this country.”
Hispanic Catholics in the US
In the mid-to-late 20th century, immigration to the United States shifted demographically from predominantly European countries to Latin American—especially Mexican—and Asian and African peoples. The growth of the Catholic Church in the United States correlates with this shift; of the estimated 77.7 million Catholics, approximately 39 percent are Hispanic. Of these, 64 percent self-identify as Catholics who attend church services regularly. More than 50 percent of Catholics in the United States aged 25 or younger are Hispanic.
Pew by pew, parish by parish, the Church has been and continues to be intricately intertwined in very personal ways among those who established roots in the United States generations ago and those who are recently arrived and are just embarking on their American journey.
What about the Border?
MOST, AMONG THE WAVES of Irish, Italian, German, and other immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, came to the United States by sea. They disembarked and were processed at one of several ports. Their countries of origin were far away, and it was less easy to maintain constant contact with family and friends left behind.
The majority of today’s wave of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America came from across the southern US border. That’s why familial and cultural ties can not only seem but actually be more immediate.
The Church recognizes that the United States has the right to secure its border. And, Archbishop Gomez tells St. Anthony Messenger, there are good reasons for this: “No doubt, there is drug trafficking and violence and there is a need for vigilance. Given the reality of the world in which we live, it is important that the US have some control of the border.”
But there are personal and human nuances that bring better understanding to some of the issue’s sensitivity. “I have relatives on both sides of the border,” Archbishop Gomez explains, “so for my whole life I’ve seen the relationship between both countries, especially in the border cities, and how the border doesn’t separate people from cultural and community points of view. It is important to have immigration reform that reflects the relationship between these two countries.”
Besides physical means, other reforms could improve border security, too, and help lessen the number of people for whom a perilous journey northward through harsh deserts ends in death. “We have economic treaties with other countries, through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Alliance), for example,” says Gomez. “In my view, just having a realistic work visa situation would help to protect the border. People who come here would be legal, have work permits, and be known by our government.” In addition, addressing the root causes of poverty and other conditions that compel people to leave their home countries to provide for their families would also lessen the strain at the border.
Another concern related to personal ties and the border is the separation of families. The bishops have continued to call for reform that includes reunification of families separated by the realities of the current immigration system. Writes Gomez, “Family unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must remain the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration system.”
But with different cultures, family can mean different things. What constitutes family? Archbishop Gomez laughs softly. “That’s a good question. It would be ideal to have a more open view of the importance of community and family. But the priority is immediate family.”
“Families are separated” by a “broken immigration system,” says Archbishop Gomez. “This suffering must end.”
Maureen Pratt writes the syndicated column “Living Well” for Catholic News Service and is the author of six books, including Peace in the Storm: Meditations on Chronic Pain & Illness. Her website is maureenpratt.com. Archbishop José Gomez book is Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Notion (Our Sunday Visitor).