I met Pedro and Juanita soon after I arrived at my new assignment as pastor of their parish. Like many (if not most) of the Mexican people who made up the growing majority of the parish, these two people were undocumented. They were unable to get driver’s licenses, or government help, or an income tax return, even though they were both working at factories and money was being taken out of their check each week. They also had a daughter who was a United States citizen. We were talking about the need for a change in our government’s immigration laws so that good, law-abiding people like Juanita and Pedro would not have to live in the shadows or keep looking over their shoulder every time they left home. And I’ll never forget what they told me at the end of our conversation, trying to calm my fears for them: “Don’t worry, Father, if nothing happens, we can just wait until our daughter turns twenty-one and then she can fix our papers.” Their daughter was three!
When President Obama mentioned the need for immigration reform in his State of the Union address last month, at first I was hopeful, thinking that maybe people like Pedro and Juanita could get some help. But then I thought again about the anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to have taken over our country, with states like Arizona enacting laws that seem downright mean and racist; I lost a little of that hope. The problem of immigration and the need for some kind of immigration reform has become such a political mess over the past several years that it is difficult to talk about without creating painful polarization. It is complicated, too, by the apparent inability to share an honest dialogue.
To be sure, there are several levels of conflict here, and it seems to me that both sides of the debate could learn a lesson in civility. The problem, as I see it, is that age-old human temptation to “demonize the enemy” coupled with some obvious xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. So what should be the Catholic Christian response?
Catholics could start by joining the USCCB in support of comprehensive immigration reform. In a great document written years ago by the Bishops of both Mexico and the United States, our Church leaders talk about how the people who have recently migrated to the U.S. are our brothers and sisters, people like us, children of God who are simply trying to help their families. They are, like the document’s title suggests, “strangers no longer.” The bishops have made it their mission to support a reform which includes not only opening our doors to the stranger among us but also securing our nation’s borders. Like so many of our own ancestors who came here from other countries, the present-day immigrants are not our enemies; they are brothers and sisters, part of our family.
People like Pedro and Juanita are not a threat to our society. They speak English; they go to work every day; they are not causing unrest or disturbances; they are not criminals. Indeed they are hard-working, Church-going Catholics who, like most of their twelve-million undocumented companions, will do whatever they can to legalize their status. Let’s decide today that we too will do what we can to welcome these brothers and sisters. The present legal system is not working when it comes to immigration; everyone on both sides of this issue agrees with that.
By Father Ed Shea, O.F.M., Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call