Although the Statue of Liberty was not originally erected to welcome immigrants, it quickly became a powerful symbol of hope as countless ships sailed or steamed past Lady Liberty carrying their foreign passengers to their new homes in a land of promise and opportunity. It was especially the words of the poet Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” commissioned for its construction and placed on a bronze plaque in its base, that sealed the association of this great symbol of American freedom with this young nation’s attitude toward its immigrant population. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
America has always been at its best when it has lived up to this great ideal of hospitality to those seeking freedom and opportunity. We justly pride ourselves on this. But sadly, we have not always lived up to our own ideals. There have been ugly outbursts of anti-immigrant “nativism” and xenophobia throughout our history. My Irish ancestors endured hostility and suspicion largely because of their Catholic faith, as did waves of southern European immigrants. The same can be said for the Asians, who also came, and, more recently, the Latinos. Integrating immigrants into this land and its complex culture has always been a challenge. But it is a challenge that we have always risen to embrace and accept. We are richer as a nation because of our diverse cultural heritage.
Our nation is currently facing a monumental challenge concerning immigration. Questions about immigration policy stir up strong emotional reactions. But there is no question that our immigration system is woefully inadequate. It is broken and problematic in many ways. The demands of our vast economy are not being adequately served by the limited number of visas that allow workers to legally enter this country and take jobs that must be filled. Families are separated and kept apart for years at a time because of lack of access to family unification visas. Violence and hunger abroad bring people to our borders every day. These are some of the powerful driving forces behind illegal immigration.
The Catholic Church certainly does not support or encourage illegal immigration. A nation has a sovereign right to control its borders. While acknowledging this duty, we also affirm that this is not the only concern that our legislators must take into account in reforming our immigration system.
Many contributing factors have left us with millions of undocumented migrants forced to live a shadow life where they are subject to exploitation and violence at the hands of unscrupulous traffickers, employers and criminals. If we do nothing to remedy this situation quickly, we are in danger of creating a permanent underclass without access to full participation in our economic and civic life. One of the truly tragic costs of this situation is its effect on a generation of innocent children who entered the United States with their parents and now live without hope or an opportunity to live the American dream. A major overhaul of the immigration system is in everyone’s best interest!
As Catholics, we cannot take a seat on the sidelines in this immigration debate. Many of these immigrants are members of our Church who look to us for support and assistance. They should not be invisible to us. They are our neighbors, they attend church with us, they go to school with our children, they work with us and they work for us. We have an opportunity to help affect a significant reform of this system. The Scriptures and rich tradition of our Catholic social teaching form the basis of our concern. Jesus reminds us that he is the “stranger” whom we welcome or refuse to welcome when we confront human suffering: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:35, 40).
The Senate has already passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill and the House may take some action on immigration reform before the end of the year. Though the House will not likely address comprehensive reform, it may produce individual bills that can then become the basis of negotiation with the Senate. I urge you to study these matters prayerfully. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has set up a website called Justice for Immigrants (www.justiceforimmigrants.org), which is updated regularly. Please contact your congressman and ask him to support comprehensive immigration reform. Our nation needs it. Our faith urges us to act.