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.
Here in the Diocese of Orlando, this Mass will conclude our observance of National Migration Week whose theme this year, Journey to Justice, evokes the hopes and aspirations that has, over the years, motivated refugees and immigrants to come to this land of opportunity and freedom. This weekend, in honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are reminded that in our nation’s history for too many, and for too long, the words at the conclusion of our pledge of allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all” rang hollow; for too many and too long, hope for justice was only a dream.
Late last year the United States Bishops’ Conference initiated the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform. Like Dr. King in his famous “I have a dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we bishops “…refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Through this Catholic Campaign we join together with other religious and civic leaders to call upon President Bush and our elected officials in Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation that establishes a safe and humane immigration system consistent with our values as a nation founded on the belief that all men were created equal.
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.
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.
We call for immigration reform because each day in our congregations, service programs, health-care facilities, and schools we witness the human consequences of an outmoded system. We see and hear the suffering of immigrant families who have lost loved ones to death in the desert or immigrants themselves who have experienced exploitation in the workplace or abuse at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and others. In our view, changes to the U.S. legal immigration system would help put an end to this suffering, which offends the dignity of all human beings. Just as the unjust and racist Jim Crow laws gave legal sanction to segregation and supported the creation of an underclass of separate but unequal citizens, in our unwillingness as a nation to address the realities of undocumented immigration constructively and compassionately we risk creating a new underclass, a new looming underclass some 10 million strong forced to live in the shadows without any remedies that would afford them the opportunity to seek citizenship and the protection of law.
In calling attention to the moral dimensions of public policy and advocating policies that uphold the human dignity of each person, all of whom are made in the image of God, we are not seeking to impose “religious views” on the larger society in which we live. In recent years, some have tried to silence the voice of men and women of faith in the public square evoking “the separation of Church and State”. And, of course, we do not impose – nor could we; we do however make our proposition, and to do so is to exercise the right of our citizenship and so contribute to the common good of all.
Some of those who today most harshly criticize the engagement of Bishops on issues of public policy whether on life issues, like abortion or stem-cell research, or on peace and justice issues, like the conduct of war or trade policy, forget that the great civil rights movement of the 1960’s was in its inspiration and leadership a religious movement. Dr. King was a Baptist preacher – and those who swell the ranks of marchers that faced down fire hoses and police dogs, were for the most part Church people. To those who told him to stay in the pulpit and out of the street, Martin Luther King said: The Church is not the master of the state, nor is the Church its servant; the Church is to be its conscience. Martin Luther King and those who linked arms with him touched the conscience of a nation and helped to bring an end to the legally sanctioned underclass made possible by unjust Jim Crow laws.
We engage the immigration issue with the goal of touching the conscience of the nation and its leaders. Our proposal is about fashioning an immigration system that facilitates legal status and family unity in the interest of serving the God-given dignity and rights of every individual.
In observing National Migration Week, our prayer is that the legislative process will produce a just immigration system of which our nation of immigrants can be proud.
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.
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)