José H. Gomez, Archbishop of San Antonio and the senior Hispanic member of the United States’ Catholic hierarchy, spoke at a rally at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City on Saturday, calling for a moratorium on deportations, federal work site raids, and new anti-immigration legislation until after the upcoming elections. He suggested that instead of deportations, which he said break up families, illegal immigrants should be subject to “intensive, long-term community service.”
Saying he believed immigration to be “the great civil rights test of our generation,” he discussed his own status as an American citizen who grew up as an immigrant born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico.
“I’ve always had family and friends on both sides of the border. So I have many conflicting emotions about the way this debate has played out in recent years,” he explained.
Turning to early Christian history, he described how the notorious Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who returned to paganism after a Christian upbringing, thought the uniquely Christian benevolence toward strangers weakened the power of his preferred religion.
“To be a Christian was to practice hospitality to the stranger,” he said, quoting several Scriptural verses and Church Fathers.
He especially focused upon Christ’s words in Matthew 25: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me … As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Thus, Archbishop Gomez explained, Catholic interest in immigration is not a recent development but “part of our religious identity as Catholics, as Christians.”
Immigration Dispute Bad for American’s souls
Speaking as a pastor, the archbishop said the immigration dispute is “bad for the souls of Americans.”
“There is too much anger. Too much resentment. Too much fear. Too much hate. It’s eating people up. And it’s just no good for people to be consumed by fear and hate. It’s no good for their souls. And it’s no good for our country, my friends.”
He noted the hundreds of “anti-immigrant laws” enacted in the past two years, calling some “so clearly vindictive, so obviously meant to injure and intimidate, that I worry that the effect will be to diminish respect for the rule of law.”
“We need to find a way to stop lashing out at the problem and to start making sensible policy,” he said in his keynote address to the annual assembly of the Missouri Catholic Conference, adding, “This is a national crisis and it calls for national leadership.”
Noting that politicians did not want to address the issue before the election following what he called the “bitter failure” of the 2007 immigration bill, he said that leaders should “roll up their sleeves and get to work” on comprehensive immigration reform after the election.
He acknowledged the fears of immigration opponents as legitimate, naming the concerns about a terrorist attack or downward pressure on wages.
“So we have to do a better job of listening to people. And we need to be calm about presenting the facts,” the archbishop said, naming the economic need for a large immigrant workforce and the already increased border security as subjects people need to be reminded about.
Another fact to acknowledge, Archbishop Gomez added, is that “millions of immigrants are here in blatant violation of U.S. law.”
“This makes law-abiding Americans angry. And it should. Why should they obey the laws if others aren’t punished for breaking them? As advocates, we can’t ignore this fact or somehow argue that our immigration laws don’t matter.”
However, the archbishop said legal reforms are necessary.
Reform the Response to Illegal Immigration
“The law should not be used to scare people, to invade their homes and work-sites, to break up families,” he continued. “From a practical standpoint, I don’t see how these measures are solving any problems. Instead, they’re creating new ones.”
The deportations of immigrants, he charged, are “breaking up families” and thus “leaving wives without husbands, children without parents. … As we all know, a policy that breaks families apart can only lead to greater sufferings and social problems.”
Saying those in the U.S. illegally can’t “expect to escape punishment,” but seeing deportation as a punishment “disproportionate to the crime,” he endorsed “intensive, long-term community service” as a “far more constructive solution.”
“This would build communities rather than tear them apart. And it would serve to better integrate the immigrants into the social and moral fabric of America,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“The Church has an important role to play in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation on this issue,” he stated. “We must work so that justice and mercy, not anger and resentment, are the motives behind our response to illegal immigration.”
He explained to the audience that the Greek word for hospitality is “philoxenia,” literally “the love of strangers.” Noting that Christians worship “the God who is Love,” he concluded:
“Let us be faithful servants of Love. Let us abound in love, in good works and hospitality for the strangers among us.”