Editorial: Our forgotten history

As we enter the final stretch of our presidential election season, immigration too often is framed only in political terms. Dialogue is rare, and it often starts and stops with competing numbers and statistics. Most of the time, the debate is harsh and unbalanced, with accusations that the other side doesn’t care about people or families affected, the security of our nation, or both.

The Catholic Church offers other and more compelling human ways to frame immigration, based on history, people and faith. In a Sept. 8 speech on immigration at Harvard University, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, an immigrant himself, stressed that in order to tackle the issue in its fullness, we must strive to see immigration in terms of “faces and names and families and stories” instead of statistics.

As Catholics, our challenge is, with prayer and thoughtfulness, to look at the issue through a lens of history, faith and humanity. This does not mean we forfeit our right to secure borders. Effective national security is essential, and our country desperately needs comprehensive immigration reform that respects the rights of citizens while looking with compassion on the undocumented and their families. This can only be accomplished through political action. But Archbishop Gomez calls us to more — to remember the real story of America and to go out and encounter it today.

“The truth is that long before Plymouth Rock, long before George Washington and the 13 colonies, long before this country even had a name, there were missionaries and explorers here from Spain and Mexico, and they were settling the territories of what are now Florida, Texas, California and New Mexico. The first Asians, from the Philippines, started arriving in California — about 50 years before the pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock,” he said. “Something we should think about: the first nonindigenous language spoken in this country was not English. It was Spanish.”

This “forgotten history” begins with Hispanics celebrating the first Mass, the first “thanksgiving” on our shores, on Sept. 8, 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida.

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“We hear warnings all the time from politicians and the media — that immigration from Mexico and Latin America is somehow changing our American ‘identity’ and ‘character.’ I hear these arguments and I think, ‘What American identity are we talking about?’” he said. “These facts should be part of our American story. And my friends, if we really took these facts seriously, we would have a much richer, much deeper understanding of American identity and American character, of what it means to be an American, of who is an American, and of what kind of country we are meant to be.

“I think we have a duty to be the keepers of the American vision — the vision of a nation conceived under God and committed to human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of diverse peoples, races and beliefs,” he said. “On a human level, I think it’s important for us to get to know our immigrant brothers and sisters, documented or undocumented.”

Pope Francis has often used the metaphor of a “field hospital” to describe the Church, in which we meet those in need, provide them aid and healing and then accompany them. Archbishop Gomez is asking us to put that into practice in our country, first by helping everyone to see immigrants, including the undocumented, as our brothers and sisters.

Editorial Board: Scot Landry, chief mission officer; Greg Willits, editorial director; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor