One man's mission to renew America's soul

With the passage of a new immigration bill in the Senate June 27 and with pieces of legislation being voted on in the House of Representatives, immigration reform — at least for now — is on the move in Washington, D.C.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles speaks to the media after a March 8 meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama and other faith leaders to discuss the need for immigration reform. CNS photo/Joshua Roberts

But for Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, this reform can’t happen too soon. If a path to citizenship isn’t established quickly, he said, an “underclass society” of immigrants will form in the United States that will rival segregation.

“We have people who have no rights,” Archbishop Gomez told Our Sunday Visitor. “They cannot get a driver’s license or provide for their children. One of the basic principles of this country is that we are all equal because we are children of God.”

The archbishop, who recently wrote the book “Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation,” said the United States today is “at a crossroads.” Immigration reform “is not just about the 10 million [immigrants] who are here,” he said. “It’s about who we are and who we want to be” as a country.

America’s past

In order to look forward to the future of America, Archbishop Gomez said we must first look behind us. This means reflecting on the complete history of immigration in the United States — that of Native Americans and the Latinos in the Southwest, as well as 19th-century Europeans.

“The issue of immigration in the 21st century makes sense only when you understand the origins of our country,” he said. “It’s a bunch of immigrants.”

Archbishop Gomez understands that concept well, as he was one of them. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1951, he was ordained an Opus Dei priest Aug. 15, 1978. In 1987, he was assigned to a parish in San Antonio, Texas. Eight years later he became a U.S. citizen.

Having one foot on each side of the border (much of his family still lives in Mexico) is not a foreign concept to the archbishop. Since 1805, his family members liberally moved around what is now Northern Mexico and Southern Texas.

“There were no borders; people just moved at that time,” he said. As a result, “people on one side or the other side are the same people.” And, regardless of what side a person landed on, the dignity of each individual continues to apply.

Along with the creation of border came the creation of fear, Archbishop Gomez said — fear of those who may speak a different language or have a different educational background; fear of “the other.” This fear often is based in the unknown, he said, and to circumvent this at the parish level, he recommends that Latinos, or other immigrant parishioners, join the parish council.

“When they get to know each other, everything is fine,” he said. “All of these obstacles are overcome in time.”

What’s important to remember, he added, is that people to the south of the border are just as “normal” as those north of the border.

“They have good solid, families and are committed Christians and Catholics,” he said. “They are souls.”

Immigration reform

By attempting to move to the United States, Archbishop Gomez said, immigrants are looking for a way to earn a living and provide for their families. But as they continue to die in the desert while attempting to cross the border and as parents continue to be deported and separated from their children, he said the need for comprehensive reform is becoming even more urgent.

According to the archbishop, immigration reform should balance a path to citizenship, a worker visa program and a “reasonable” method of border protection. It should respect all people as well as underscore the right of all people to work.

Along with a 13-year path to citizenship, the legislation passed June 27 by the Senate proposes, at the cost of $30 billion, to increase the number of border patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border to about 40,000 and to complete the construction of 700 miles of fence. Border patrol agents also would be authorized to use radar and aerial drones to monitor immigrants attempting to cross the border illegally.

Though Archbishop Gomez acknowledged that this bipartisan legislation is a good start, he said walls are impractical, expensive and ineffective and — paired with an increase of “soldiers” — don’t offer a reasonable solution. Rather, what’s needed is a “system of movement of people” — one that keeps track of who is coming into the country, similar to Ellis Island or Galveston, Texas.

“People were able to come, we knew who they were, and there was no problem,” he said. “A wall in itself is not going to solve the problem.”

A values-based culture

A major challenge for America, Archbishop Gomez said, is not to fall victim to continued secularism. Immigrants, who have strong ties to faith, family and community, can help reintegrate those values into American society.

“Those values are very deep in a lot of immigrants who come from Latin America,” he said. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the impact of immigrants — whether from Latin America or Southeast Asia — is on display every weekend during Catholic liturgies.

“Every single parish is packed with people in a city that is famous for everything except faith,” Archbishop Gomez said. All have “deep values based on the Faith. It’s important for us to understand that and to strengthen those values as a way to make sure the country continues the values that were part of our foundation.”

“People with faith, families, with love for our country, they’re going to be the foundation of the future of our country,” he said.

Latino immigrants, especially, have the values to participate in this foundation, he said, but they are afraid to come forward due to fear of deportation. Should that fear be eliminated, they will actively participate in the culture, he said. In addition, they will pass those values onto their children and ultimately help rebuild the country.

The next America

Archbishop Gomez hopes his new book will give people of all faiths a “better understanding of the human person,” as well as the history of the U.S. Church. “We were a very important part of the foundation of this country,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of persecution.”

The archbishop also said he hopes readers will glean from the book a better understanding of the value of immigrants in American society — who he called “a blessing.”

They are “not something negative or something we have to be afraid of,” he said. They’re “something good, positive.”

And he hopes his book will be informative, especially where the rich history of the Southwest is concerned.

“I hope that they understand better the first evangelization,” he said. “In that way we can, from now on, engage more fruitfully in the new evangelization.” 

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.