In a new book marking Independence Day, the archbishop of Los Angeles addresses immigration reform in the context of the American Dream, seeking to stir the consciences of national Catholics.
“Fears about America’s future have given rise to a new nativism,” Archbishop José Gomez, a Mexican-born American citizen, wrote in “Immigration and the Next America,” due to be released July 5.
“Their idea is that 'real' Americans descend from white Europeans and that our culture is based on the individualism, work ethic, and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.”
“Our history teaches that when we get scared, we want to close ranks and close the 'golden door' of America to foreigners and those of other races. In today’s immigration debate we need to be honest with ourselves,” the archbishop said.
“We must acknowledge that there have been times in our history when we have allowed our fears to drag us down, and caused us to forget our creed and our national identity,” he emphasized.
“We cannot let this become one of those times. Our task today is to confront our fears and resist the temptations to narrow the horizons of who can be an American.”
As Congress considers immigration reform to address the situation of 11 million people who live here illegally, hundreds of thousands, many of whom have intact families, are being deported in the name of enforcing our laws.
Immigration policy has been “focused on punishing” illegal immigrants, Archbishop Gomez wrote, and that immigration debate has a “persistent undertone” of “fear and … chauvinism.”
In response to this, “as a pastor,” the archbishop said that “I'm worried we are losing something of our national soul.”
In focusing on deportation, America is focusing on “justice and law” to the exclusion of “compassion and common sense.” The present policy “betrays our values,” wrote Archbishop Gomez.
He noted that the Church has “far more day-to-day experience with immigrants … than any other institution,” and over her 2,000 years “has gained a lot of insight into human behavior and society.”
A root cause of the immigration problem, the archbishop said, is economic inequality, and that the situation will not change until inequality across the Americas is addressed.
“People leave their homes and their families because they are needy and desperate. They leave their home countries because they cannot provide the necessities of life for themselves and their families.”
Another fear feeding into anti-immigrant sentiment comes from the recognition that America is in a spiritual decline, marked by secularization.
“We are making immigrants, especially the undocumented ones, into a kind of symbol of all these factors that we are worried about.”
Archbishop Gomez reminds his readers that 200 years before the Declaration of Independence was written, missionaries from the Spanish world were preaching to native Americans, and that “the Hispanic presence has deep roots in this soil.”
The national story that focuses on the 13 colonies is not “untrue,” he said, “but it is biased and incomplete,” and has played into the anti-Catholic politics of Protestant Europe.
“America needs a more accurate and honest story of its origins,” one that acknowledges the place of the United States in the larger Americas, wrote the archbishop.
“Without the rest of the American story, we are left with a distorted idea of American identity and national culture. And at certain moments in American history, this incomplete sense of American identity has led to grave injustices. I am afraid we could be in one of those historical moments right now.”
Immigration has always been essential to American identity, said Archbishop Gomez, though he added that the country has often had conflicts over immigration and race.
He noted the anti-immigrant forces of the 1800s, the “Know-Nothings,” who wanted to keep America white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. They argued that the new immigrants “came from inferior backgrounds; that they were lazy, uneducated, and inclined to criminal activity; that they wouldn’t learn English; that they didn’t share American values and weren’t interested in becoming loyal citizens.”
In contrast to this narrow vision of America, the best vision, the founding vision, is based on the biblical teaching that human life is sacred and imbued with great dignity, wrote Archbishop Gomez.
The immigration debate requires “that we examine our conscience about our commitment to the American creed. It also requires that we take a hard look at our attitudes about race and our assumptions about what it means to be an American.”
The fear over America's future has lead to a “new nativism,” the archbishop said, adding that “the arguments of today’s nativists aren’t much different than those of nativists in years gone by.”
Archbishop Gomez added that anti-immigrant bias has often “merged” with anti-Catholic prejudice, and that as American society becomes more secularized, this is increasingly a factor.
In the face of this, he urged Catholics to make political judgments “rooted in our religious convictions and moral values,” rather than in political parties.
Our own judgment will be based in part on whether we welcome Christ in strangers, Archbishop Gomez reminded.
To show that his teaching on immigration is not his own, the archbishop referred to a 1952 document by Venerable Pius XII which called the Holy Family, who fled to Egypt, “the models … of every migrant, alien, and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”
Migration is a natural right, Archbishop Gomez noted, though saying this has to be balanced with the right of national sovereignty.
However, “governments must be careful not to use their policies as an excuse to deny decent people the right to seek their livelihood,” nor “deny the natural human right to immigration out of exaggerated fears for national security or selfish concerns about threats to domestic jobs or standards of living,” as Blessed John Paul II taught.
In this light, Archbishop Gomez said the American Dream “must inspire a new movement of conscience,” and that the outcome of immigration debate “will tell us if the dream of America still beats in our hearts or whether other dreams have come to take its place.”
Immigration – including illegal immigration – “is not about us versus them,” he writes.
Archbishop Gomez agrees that undocumented persons “should be held accountable,” but does not favor deportation as a realistic answer in the face of the families it will break up.
He suggested intensive and long-term community service, as well as education and formation in American civic life. “To my mind, this is far more constructive than deportation and fines,” by actually building up families and communities.
“We need to work for an America where life is cherished and welcomed as a gift – from the child in the womb to the elderly and the handicapped, the poor and the prisoner; to the immigrant who comes to our land seeking a new life for his family,” he urged.
Christ, he said, “never distinguished between those who 'deserve' our love and those who don’t. He told us that God makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
“So we can’t choose to love some but not to love others. We can’t justify showing less compassion for those who don’t have the right documents.”