Thursday, April 8, 2010

Archbishop Gomez - 'Immigration is the great civil rights test of our generation'

Back in October, ‘08, Archbishop Jose Gomez was the keynote speaker at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly. In his speech from the podium of the State House of Representatives in Jefferson City, Archbishop Gomez traced the history of the Christian imperative to welcome the stranger and reviewed its implication for today. At the time, I only posted excerpts from his speech since I deemed it too long for a blog post. Given his newfound prominence and the interest in his views on immigration, I’m posting the whole thing. It is the best presentation I’ve seen on the topic:

My brother bishops, my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus:

Greetings, my brothers and sisters! It’s so very good to be with you today! Thank you for your very warm welcome. I’m honored by your invitation to speak with you today about immigration.

In recent years, the work of the Missouri bishops and the Catholic Conference has been a model for mature, reasoned, and compassionate participation in the immigration debate. When we finally achieve the comprehensive reforms America needs, it will be in no small part thanks to the kind of witness and leadership you’ve provided. So I thank you for your work. And I’m humbled that you would ask to hear some of my perspectives.

As you know, the immigration issue is very important to me, too. In fact, I believe immigration is the great civil rights test of our generation. I was recently honored to be appointed as a consultant to Pope Benedict’s Pontifical Commission on Latin America. And immigration is one of the critical challenges the Church faces in our hemisphere.

This issue is also deeply personal for me. 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. (At that time it was still under Spanish rule.) 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.

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

You remember your history, I’m sure. After centuries of persecution, Christianity became first a “tolerated” religion, and then the official state religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine, beginning in the early fourth century. Well, Julian was the son of Constantine’s half-brother, Julius Constantius, and he came to power after a series of bloody struggles.

Julian came to be known for all time as “Julian the Apostate.” He got that notorious label because, although he had been baptized and raised a Christian, he abandoned his faith immediately upon becoming emperor. Julian then used his “bully pulpit” as emperor to scorn the Church and Christianity and to promote devotion to the pagan gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome—Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the rest.

Julian called the Christians “Galileans.” It was a kind of ethnic and class slur. And he wrote a big book against the Church. He said his aim was to strip that “new-fangled Galilean god” of “the divinity falsely ascribed to him” (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 177).

But there was something that Julian couldn’t shake about the Christians. Something he couldn’t get out of his mind. And that was the Christians’ 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.”

Here’s a quote from a letter he wrote, and you can tell he’s not very happy. He complains that Christians’ care for strangers and their holiness is contributing to the spread of “atheism.” (He called Christians “atheists” because they didn’t believe in the pagan gods.)

Here’s what Julian wrote: “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers … and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism. … It is disgraceful that when … the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us.” (Macmullen and Lane, Paganism and Christianity, 100–425 C.E.: A Sourcebook, 271–272).

You see he’s embarrassed. Ashamed. The Christians are so generous that they’re helping the poor Romans and that exposes how the Romans themselves don’t take care of their poor.

My friends, my point in this little history lesson is this: From the beginning there was something very different about Christians. Something even their enemies, like Julian, couldn’t help but notice—and admire, no matter how reluctantly.

It’s true there was a tradition of welcoming the stranger in other cultures and religions. Philosophers like Plato wrote about the importance of hospitality. But for the first Christians it became an original and central element of their religious identity. To be a Christian was to practice hospitality to the stranger.

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 (Gen. 18). Still today we have that expression about “entertaining angels unaware.”

That expression actually comes from the New Testament interpreting the Abraham story. The Letter to the Hebrews gives us the principle: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2).

There are quotes about hospitality throughout the New Testament. And I could cite many from the Church Fathers. I’ll just quote one. St. Augustine.

Now, St. Augustine wrote this near the end of the Roman Empire. And even then, when the borders of the empire were compromised and its economy was in ruins, Augustine taught that Christians have a duty to welcome the strangers.

He wrote: “Be meek, sympathize with the suffering, carry the weak. And in this time of so many strangers, needy, and suffering people, let your hospitality and good works abound.” (Sermon 31)

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” (Matt. 25:35, 40).

My brothers and sisters: We all know this quote. It is an important inspiration for our works of charity and justice. But what I want to emphasize today 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 today. The Church’s interest in immigration is not a recent development. It doesn’t grow out of any political or partisan agenda. No. It is a part of our original religious identity as Catholics, as Christians. We must defend the immigrant if we are to be worthy of the name Catholic.

So your work here in Missouri is not only vital in terms of solidarity and care for others. In terms of the dignity of the human person and the dignity of labor. Your work is also very close to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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—in every time and in every place. So through your work, you reveal Christ’s love for all who are forced to leave their homelands to seek a better life in a new land that’s not their own.

Yet our work together on this issue faces many challenges today.

Friends, 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. It’s no good for their souls. And it’s no good for our country, my friends.

And I worry that our policies more and more reflect these kind of fears and resentments. I don’t know how many anti-immigrant laws have been enacted this year. I’ve lost track. The last I heard, it was something like 200 new laws in 40 states. And that’s just this year. In 2007, I believe there were 240 new laws in 46 states.

Many of these 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.

Again, I say these things as a pastor, not a politician. We need to find a way to stop lashing out at the problem and to start making sensible policy. I would like to see a moratorium on new state and local legislation. And, as the U.S. bishops recently called for, I would like to see an end to federal work-site enforcement raids.

This is a national crisis and it calls for national leadership. I understand that the presidential candidates don’t want to touch this issue before the election. Nor does Congress after the bitter failure of the 2007 immigration bill.

But this is the hard work of democracy. As soon as this election is over and a new government sworn in, we need to insist that our leaders roll up their sleeves and get to work on comprehensive immigration reform.

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. Millions who are presently forced by our failed policies to live without rights at the margins of this great country.

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.

My third point today is about the role of the Church. Your role and mine. 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, it’s true that the right to immigration is not absolute. Church teaching recognizes the government’s right to regulate immigration. To weigh immigration’s impact on the economy and our 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. And as this financial crisis unfolds on Wall Street, those fears are only going to get worse.

So we have to do a better job of listening to people. And we need to be calm about presenting the facts.

By the way, I am very impressed by the work of MATT—Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together. They have a very reasoned and comprehensive approach to reform that is in line with Catholic social teaching. If you don’t know their work, they are on the web—MATT.org.

We have to keep reminding people of some basic facts. First, that the borders are much more secure now than they were eight years ago. 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.

I was in Pennsylvania a few months ago to talk about immigration. They have enacted some of the toughest laws. And as a result, one of the largest tomato growers in the Northeast had to go out of business. The owner shut down because so many of his workers were being deported and he was being threatened with jail and huge fines for employing them. This is happening all over the country.

If American businesses can’t find the workforce they need here in America, they’re going to either shut down or relocate elsewhere. I’m not an economist any more than I’m a politician. But I think we can see that this isn’t good for our economy.

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, in which religion, family, friendship, community, and the culture of life, are important values.

I also think we need to keep talking about immigration in terms of the realities of globalization. I know you’ve done good work on this issue here in Missouri. The bottom line with globalization is that as long as workers can earn more in one hour in the U.S. than they can earn in a day or a week in Mexico, they will continue to migrate to this country.

We need to ensure that our leaders, and leaders throughout the hemisphere, address the economic “causes” of immigration. We need to promote local development and reform in Latin American countries. Few people “want” to leave their homes. They do so because they need work. We need to seek changes so that fewer people will feel compelled to leave their homelands to seek work in this country.

Finally, my friends: The Church has an important role to play in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation on this issue. We must work so that justice and mercy, not anger and resentment, are the motives behind our response to illegal immigration.

The fact is that millions of immigrants are here in blatant violation of U.S. law. This makes law-abiding Americans angry. And it should. Why should they obey the laws if others aren’t punished for breaking them? As advocates, we can’t ignore this fact or somehow argue that our immigration laws don’t matter.

We have to make sure that our laws are fair and understandable. At the same time, we have to insist that our laws be respected and enforced. Those who violate our laws have to be punished.

The question is how? What punishments are proper and just? I think, from a moral standpoint, we’re forced to conclude that deporting immigrants who break our laws is too severe a penalty. It’s a punishment that’s disproportionate to the crime. It’s a punishment that doesn’t account for the complex circumstances of how and why people enter this country illegally.

What’s most troubling to me as a pastor is that these deportations are breaking up families. Leaving wives without husbands, children without parents. A fundamental dimension of Catholic social teaching on immigration is that our policies should be aimed at reuniting and strengthening families—not tearing them apart. As we all know, a policy that breaks families apart can only lead to greater sufferings and social problems.

Pope Benedict was adamant on this point during his visit to America. He said this: “I have seen the breadth of this problem, especially the serious problem of the break-up of families. And this is really dangerous for the social, moral and human fabric … Families should be protected rather than destroyed.” (Interview during the flight to the United States, April 15, 2008)

Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enforce the laws. It means we need to find more suitable penalties. The Church needs to be a voice for mercy as well as justice. We have to insist that those who come to our country respect our laws. If they are here illegally, they can’t expect to escape punishment. But I would suggest that intensive, long-term community service would be a far more constructive solution than deportation. This would build communities rather than tear them apart. And it would serve to better integrate the immigrants into the social and moral fabric of America.

This brings me back around to the point I began with. As Catholics, we need to recover our identity as a people who welcome the stranger.

Reasoned arguments will only get us so far. We will change the hearts and minds of our countrymen on this issue only if we ourselves become living examples of the Gospel we proclaim.

We need to be the people St. Augustine talked about. People who sympathize with the suffering, who lift up the weak. Who abound in good works and hospitality.

It’s interesting to me that in the New Testament, the word for “hospitality” in Greek is philoxenia. We all know what xenophobia is. That’s the “fear of strangers.” In fact, I’d say we have more than a mild case of xenophobia in our country these days. The Christian word for “hospitality” is like the antidote to that. Philoxenia literally means “love of strangers.”

This is who we are called to be—“lovers of strangers.” Lovers of the immigrant, the alien, the undocumented. This love is not some sentimental affection. It’s a radical love in which we open our hearts and our homeland to the stranger in need.

My friends, we need to intensify our concern and advocacy for the immigrants in our midst. But I appeal to you: Don’t forget their spiritual needs, even as you fight on for their dignity and rights in the economic and political realm.

I often recall a story about Blessed Mother Teresa. Once she went to Nezahualc├│yotl, Mexico. She was talking to the very poor people there. People living in the worst conditions. She asked them what their greatest need was. One man spoke for all the rest. He said: La Palabra de Dios. The Word of God.

Let’s never forget that, my friends. Our people hunger and thirst for justice. For fair wages and benefits. For decent working conditions. But they hunger, too, for the Gospel, the truth of salvation. La Palabra de Dios.

Let me leave you with one more story about Blessed Mother Teresa. It’s a great story of hospitality. Early in her ministry in Calcutta, she found a woman who had been left on the streets to die.

Mother Teresa took her into her home and started cleaning her up. She was covered in sores. The whole time the woman was cursing at her. At one point the woman screamed: “People don’t do things like this. Who taught you?” Mother Teresa responded, “My God taught me.”

So the woman asked who her god was. And Mother Teresa said: “You know my God. My God is called love.”

This is the God we serve, my friends. The God who is Love. Let us be faithful servants of Love. Let us abound in love. In good works and hospitality for the strangers among us.

I’m grateful for this chance to speak with you today. I pray that Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, will watch over and keep you. Thank you.