For 25 years, the US Bishops have observed National Migration Week, usually on or near the feast of Epiphany in which the adoration of the Magi represents the universality of the Salvation offered by Christ who birth we have recently celebrated.
No one should be surprised that the Catholic Church has taken a strong stance in favor of immigrants. After all, many newcomers are in fact Catholics or come from Catholic lands. And most of us Catholics fortunate to have been born in the United States are only a generation or two at most removed from the immigrant experience. And those who know their American history are aware of how much the anti-immigrant nativism that emerged in the 19 th century was a manifestation of a deep Anti-Catholicism that has yet to be fully expunged from our national consciousness.
However, our “pro-immigrant” advocacy is about more than “enlightened self-interest”. It is a lived application of the gospel message itself. As the Bishops of the US and Mexico wrote in their historic 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer, Together on the Journey of Hope”:
“Our common faith in Jesus Christ moves us to search for ways that favor a spirit of solidarity. It is a faith that transcends borders and bids us to overcome all forms of discrimination and violence so that we may build relationships that are just and loving.”
Never has this call to solidarity been needed more than today. A populist “neo-nativism”, railing about so-called “illegal aliens”, labels those who have come to our land seeking a better life for themselves and their families as “law-breakers”. Recently legislation has been proposed that would criminalize their presence in the U.S.
However, the reality is that because of our inadequate and antiquated immigration laws, these immigrants are not so much “breaking the law” as being “broken” by it. Illegal immigration shouldn’t be tolerated – but the solution lies not in punishing the victim, for these “illegal workers” often face discrimination and exploitation; but, in providing legal avenues for them to regularize their status in our country. The nativist call to expel them is impractical and cynical; our lawmakers’ reluctance to enact truly comprehensive immigration reform is also impractical and cynical – and, cowardly to boot. Laws that would help match a willing worker with a willing employer will do more to fix the “immigration crisis” than higher fences along our borders.
Our American experience has shown that immigrants bring new energy, hope and vitality to our society. Immigrants have made America stronger, not weaker; they have made America richer, not poorer; they have made America better not worse. Today, with an aging native born population, immigrants are still needed to fill jobs that keep America’s economic engine humming.
The National Migration Week’s theme, Journey to Justice, affords all of us the opportunity to commit ourselves to solidarity with immigrants and refugees and other peoples on the move seeking justice and peace. Antiquated and inadequate immigration laws are indeed problematic: employers are deprived of a legal work force; immigrant workers are denied the protection of law; families are divided for unacceptable lengths of time, smugglers often victimize and sometimes kill the people they traffic. These are problems that comprehensive legislation must address. However, the newcomer in our midst, even if he or she has no “papers” is not a “problem” but a person, a person in whom we should recognize the face of the Lord. “For, I was a stranger and you welcome me.” (Mt 25: 35)