The Catholic Voice in the Immigration Debate, The Anchor, June 25, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
June 25, 2010

One of the most pressing problems for our nation to solve is illegal immigration. Recent legislation in Arizona has brought the many social, political and moral issues regarding illegal immigration to the forefront. The Catholic Church in the United States has been very involved in the questions of immigration, not only because of its immigrant history or because the vast majority of immigrants are Catholics, but most fundamentally, because the Lord Jesus told us to welcome the immigrant and the stranger as we would him (Mt 25:35,43).

The Catholic Church’s powerful moral message in the immigration debate has occasionally been mischaracterized, sensationalized and oversimplified, sometimes even from within, as a blind support for immigrants without consideration of the security concerns involved or the relevant distinction between illegal and legal immigrants. The most noted example of this came when Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in response to the Arizona legislation, hyperbolically and unhelpfully said that those who supported such a “retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant law” were “reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques.”

The Catholic Church’s authentic and articulated message — embodied in documents like “Strangers No Longer,” a joint pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops of the United States and Mexico ( — was expressed by Cardinal Mahony’s soon-to-be-successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, who was installed as Coadjutor Archbishop of Los Angeles on May 26. Archbishop Gomez has a deep, personal understanding of immigration issues: He is both an immigrant and an American citizen. He grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, but has spent most of his priesthood in the United States. His father was a Mexican doctor and his mother was raised in San Antonio. He has generations of family and friends on both sides of the border.

In a fascinating May 28 interview with the Catholic News Agency on the problems facing the Catholic Church in the United States, Archbishop Gomez was asked to comment on the immigration crisis. Insofar as he is preparing to take over the largest U.S. Diocese — with a huge number of immigrants, legal and illegal — he is expected to take a leading role in the Church’s response on immigration issues. His comments are consequently highly noteworthy and are likely to provide a moral challenge to people on all sides of the immigration debate.

When asked what is Church’s role in the political debate over immigration, he replied that it is fundamentally to form consciences and create a proper tone: to help citizens recognize the responsibilities they have to immigrants and to assist immigrants to see the moral duties they have to our country, in a context in which society seeks to balance various goods to form just policy.

“The Church is not a political party or interest group. It is not the Church’s primary task to fight political battles or to be engaged in debates over specific policies. This task belongs to the laity,” Archbishop Gomez stressed. He said the Church’s interest is “part of our original religious identity as Catholics, as Christians. We must defend the immigrant if we are to be worthy of the name Catholic. For bishops and priests, our job as pastors is to help form our peoples’ consciences, especially those who work in the business community and in government, … to work for reforms in a system that denies human dignity to so many.” The Church’s involvement is not unilateral, however. “While we forcefully defend the rights of immigrants, we must also remind them of their duties under Catholic social teaching. Chief among these duties is the obligation to respect the laws of their new country. We need to help ensure that these newcomers become true Americans while preserving their own distinctive identity and culture.”

He noted that the present tenor of the debate concerns him. “I’m not a politician. I’m a pastor of souls, and as a pastor, I believe the situation that’s developed today 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. In this volatile debate, the Church must be a voice of compassion, reason, and moral principle. The Church has an important role to play in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation on this issue. We must work so that justice and mercy, not anger and resentment, are the motives behind our response to illegal immigration.”

He noted that working for just solutions to the crisis is made more difficult by the fact that some citizens, including Catholics, see immigrants through racial lenses rather than as spiritual siblings. “Unfortunately anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Hispanic bias is a problem today, even among our fellow Catholics. I don’t want to over-dramatize the situation, but we do need to be honest and recognize that racial prejudice is a driving factor behind a lot of our political conversation about immigration. In the bitter debates of recent years, I have been alarmed by the indifference of so many of our people to Catholic teaching and to the concrete demands of Christian charity. It is not only the racism, xenophobia, and scapegoating. These are signs of a more troubling reality: Many of our Catholic people no longer see the foreigners sojourning among them as brothers and sisters. To listen to the rhetoric in the U.S. and elsewhere it is as if the immigrant is not a person, but only a thief or a terrorist or a simple work-animal.”

He called everyone to remember Jesus’ life, words and moral summons. “We can never forget that Jesus himself and his family were migrants. They were forced into Egypt by the bad policies of a bad government. This was to show us Christ’s solidarity with refugees, displaced persons, and immigrants — in every time and in every place. We all know these words of Jesus: ‘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.’ We need to restore the truth that the love of God and the love of neighbor have been forever joined in the teaching — and in the person — of Jesus Christ.” We cannot truly love God, he implied, unless we truly love our immigrant neighbor.

With respect to particular immigration laws, he said they should not be “harsh and punitive, … used to scare people, to invade their homes and work-sites, to break up families.” How does threatening and harming hard-working, family-oriented illegal immigrants strengthen our society? We need to be realistic about why immigrants are coming, he said. “The bottom line is that as long as workers can earn more in one hour in the U.S. than they can earn in a day or a week in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, they will continue to migrate to this country.”

He said that, at the same time, we also have to be “more sensitive” to the “legitimate fears” of opponents of immigration. “Millions of immigrants are here in blatant violation of U.S. law. This makes law-abiding Americans angry, and it should. We have to make sure that our laws are fair and understandable. At the same time, we have to insist that our laws be respected and enforced. Those who violate our laws have to be punished. The question is how? What punishments are proper and just?”

He attempted to answer those pressing questions with practical suggestions. “I think, from a moral standpoint, we’re forced to conclude that deporting immigrants who break our laws is too severe a penalty. Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enforce the laws. It means we need to find more suitable penalties. I would suggest that intensive, long-term community service would be a far more constructive solution than deportation. 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.”

Such a proposal for long-term community service may not resolve every issue concerning illegal immigration, but it would begin to create a pathway for those who come to our country to better themselves and their families to have an opportunity to better our nation as well, while treating them as brothers and collaborators rather than as criminals, terrorists or parasites.