The immigration issue is very important to me. In fact, I believe immigration is the great civil rights test of our generation. And immigration is one of the critical challenges the Church faces in our hemisphere. This issue is also deeply personal. I come to this debate as both an American citizen and an immigrant, born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. Some of my ancestors were in what’s now Texas since 1805. 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.

Hospitality to the stranger

If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back in history a little bit to the short reign of the Emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 361 to 363.

Julian came to be known as Julian the Apostate because he abandoned his Christian faith immediately upon becoming emperor and then used his bully pulpit to scorn the Church and to promote devotion to pagan gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome.

But there was something that Julian couldn’t shake about the Christians. And that was their virtue. Their charity. And especially their hospitality to those they didn’t even know. In fact, Julian once issued an order to try to get pagan believers to start imitating the Christians in what he called their “benevolence toward strangers.”

From the beginning there was something very different about Christians. Something even their enemies couldn’t help but notice — and admire.
It’s true there was a tradition of welcoming the stranger in other cultures and religions. But for the first Christians, it became an original and central element of their religious identity.

Of course, for them, the tradition originated in Scripture. In the Old Testament, we have the story of how Abraham showed hospitality to three strangers, who turned out to be angels of God (see Gn 18). There are quotes about hospitality throughout the New Testament.

This teaching of hospitality and doing good works for strangers comes from Jesus himself. Jesus taught that in the stranger we have an encounter with the living God. “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” (Mt 25:35, 40).

Fair and just solution

We all know this quote. It is an important inspiration for our works of charity and justice. But what I want to emphasize is how unique and important that is to our identity as Christians.

To be a Catholic is to be a man or woman who serves God in the poor, in the least of these. To be a Catholic is to be a person who welcomes the stranger in need. This is who we are.

So this is the first point I want to make. The Church’s interest in immigration is not a recent development. It doesn’t grow out of any political or partisan agenda. It is a part of our original religious identity as Catholics.

 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.
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 soul of America. And it’s 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. And it’s no good for our country.

And I worry that our policies more and more reflect these kind of fears and resentments. Many anti-immigration laws are 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. The law should not be used to scare people, to invade their homes and work sites, to break up families. From a practical standpoint, I don’t see how these measures are solving any problems. Instead, they’re creating new ones.

This is a national crisis, and it calls for national leadership. As I said, this is the greatest civil rights test of our generation. The lives of millions of undocumented workers and their families hang in the balance.

So that’s my second point. We’re at a worrisome impasse in our work for immigration reform. That means we need renewed determination to forge a solution worthy of a great nation.

Compassionate voice

My third point is about the role of the Church. In this volatile debate, the Church must be a voice of compassion, reason and moral principle.

In Catholic teaching, the right to migrate is among the most basic human rights. It’s very close to the right to life. Why? Because God has created the good things of this world to be shared by all men and women — not just a privileged few.

That means that if a person can’t find the necessities of life for his family, he has the right to leave his country and to seek these things in some other country.

Now, the right to immigration is not absolute. Church teaching recognizes the government’s right to regulate immigration, to weigh its impact on the economy and national security.

But the Church also insists that no country can deny this basic human right out of exaggerated fears or selfishness. And Catholic teaching presumes that the more prosperous a country is, the more generous that country should be in welcoming foreigners.

We need to help our people and our leaders to examine their conscience in light of these principles of Catholic social teaching. As we stress the Church’s moral principles, we need to be more sensitive to people’s fears. My friends, the opponents of immigration are also people of faith. Many of them, unfortunately, are Catholics. They are hard-working Americans, and our brothers and sisters.

They are afraid. And their fears are legitimate. They’re afraid of another terrorist attack carried out by foreigners able to cross our borders without any trouble. They’re afraid that an influx of foreign workers will drive down their wages or cause them to lose their jobs. These are not baseless fears. So we have to do a better job of listening to people. And we need to be calm about presenting the facts.

We have to keep reminding people of some basic facts. First, that the borders are much more secure now than in the past. The federal government has done a great deal to secure the borders against terrorist threats and further illegal immigration.

Second, we need to help people see that our economy needs a large immigrant workforce. The fact is that immigrants are doing work Americans won’t do. And if that work doesn’t get done, important businesses die. And that has an effect on everyone because our economy is so interconnected.
So it makes good sense to offer immigrants a path to become taxpaying citizens, with all the benefits and responsibilities of other workers and citizens.

Already, we see that Hispanics are following the pattern of earlier generations of immigrants — learning the English language and ensuring that their children, too, become fluent in English. This is an area that the Church can help in, too. We need to help ensure that these newcomers become true Americans while preserving their own distinctive identity and culture.

Finally, the Church has an important role to play in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. We must work so that justice and mercy are the motives behind our response to immigration.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, recently appointed coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a consultant to the Pontifical Commission on Latin America. This is an excerpt of the archbishop’s
2008 address to the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly.