Addressing America's immigration problem, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles urged religious believers to recall the nation to an understanding of human dignity based on its biblical roots.

"The real problem is that immigration is a question about America – about our national identity and destiny, about the national 'soul,'" the Archbishop of Los Angeles told the Jewish advocacy group AJC's event "Bonds of Fellowship and Friendship" March 19.

"The question for us is what's our role in immigration reform, as religious people? ... I think our role is to be the voice of conscience and vision. That's what's been missing in the debate so far."

During his remarks, the archbishop said that he himself is an immigrant – a native of Monterrey, Mexico who did not move to the U.S. until after his college education.

Archbishop Gomez noted that the evening was an opportunity to deepen friendship between Catholics and Jews in Los Angeles, "deepening the spiritual ties that unite us in truth, respect and goodness."

He said that the communities' joint mission is to make their city a place of love, truth and peace, and that immigration reform is among the most pressing issues faced by Los Angeles.

The archbishop expressed gladness that "finally" there is movement on the issue, noting that at a meeting with religious leaders a couple weeks ago, President Obama "agreed with our concerns" on immigration.

Immigration poses questions about America's identity, he said.

"What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and where are we heading as a country? What will the "next America" look like? What should the next America look like?"

Archbishop Gomez noted G. K. Chesterton's comment that the U.S. is the only nation founded not on a territory or shared race or ethnicity, but on a creed, on a vision.

The vision, he said, is Judeo-Christian, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments.

"America's 'creed' is based on the biblical teaching that human life is sacred and has great dignity - because God made men and women in his own image. It gets expressed this way in the Declaration of Independence."

This belief has allowed a "flourishing diversity of cultures, religions and ways of life," but increasing secularism, he said, "makes it hard to talk about the values and commitments we find in America's founding documents."

America's founding principles – that human rights come not from government but from God – is what makes it even possible to talk about human rights and dignity, said Archbishop Gomez.

"So if we are not allowed to talk about God anymore in our politics or civic life then it becomes very hard to talk about human rights and human dignity."

"And I think that's one of the problems we are having in this immigration debate. We have lost sense of the 'humanity' of the men and women and children who are living in this country illegally."

He expressed concern that we are "losing something of our national soul" in how illegal immigration is addressed.

"This great nation finds itself today reduced to addressing this major issue in our public life through: name calling and discrimination; criminal 'profiling' based on race; random identity checks; violent raids of workplaces and homes; arbitrary detentions and deportations."

A quarter of persons deported from the U.S. are from intact families, he said. "In the name of enforcing our laws, now we are breaking up families."

Last year, 400,000 persons were deported, the archbishop noted. That means that last year, 100,000 families were rent apart in the name of American law.

"These are not statistics, these are souls. Human beings. We're talking about fathers and husbands who, with no warning, won't be coming home for dinner tonight – and who may not see their families again for a decade at least. We are talking about a government policy that punishes children for the crimes of their parents."

Archbishop Gomez called the nation to be "a better people than this." He said America must be a place of both justice and law, as well as compassion and common sense.

"What we're doing right now betrays our values and makes our country weaker and more vulnerable."

Jews and Christians are called to be mindful of the strangers among us "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," God told the Hebrews in Exodus.

Archbishop Gomez said that is "what our society needs to hear right now...We need to help our brothers and sisters to remember the founding vision of America. The vision of the Bible."

He said Jews and Christians must communicate this vision, in which the human person is made in the image of God. We must be "the people who remember and believe – that in God's eyes we're all his beloved sons and daughters."

Even though in "our agitated political climate" this sounds "naïve," he said this is "no time for polite silence about our values. Too much is at stake to give in to the corrosive cynicism that masks itself as political 'realism.'"

"We need to remind our neighbors," Archbishop Gomez concluded, that America was was founded on the vision "that nobody ever forfeits his humanity or his right to be treated with dignity. No matter where he comes from or how he got here."

"No matter what kind of papers he possesses or doesn't possess. This is as fundamental to the Bill of Rights as it is and the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount."