Immigration and the new Know-Nothings

Something's gotta give on the immigration front. There's a growing army of undocumented immigrants, the federal government is unwilling or unable to enforce our current immigration laws, and immigration reform seems stalled in Congress--politics as usual.

A new book by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, an immigrant himself (though of the legal variety), addresses this complex issue from the standpoint of our heritage as Catholics and as Americans. The book, just published by Our Sunday Visitor, is entitled ''Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation.'' It is a surprisingly good and thoughtful look at this issue.

Of course, we belong to a catholic Church, which is open to people of all nationalities, backgrounds and legal status--yes, even criminals and certainly sinners like you and me, hopefully repentant. The very word catholic means universal, after all. We are also a nation of immigrants. Almost everyone, except perhaps the Native Americans, arrived here from foreign shores, or is descended from those that did.

Archbishop Gomez helpfully points out that the first colonizers in what became the United States were Spanish-speaking Catholics. Our country didn't begin with the Puritans and Plymouth Rock, as important as those were.

Of course, nativism and its attendant anti-immigrant bias, often taking anti-Catholic forms, is a recurring theme in American history. Locally, we recall the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown in 1834, which is now part of Somerville (The site is now a branch of the Somerville public library.)

Even our largely Irish prelates, present one obviously excluded, have sometimes not been as welcoming as they should have been to other immigrant groups in the Church, and we have a long tradition of ethnic parishes, as Catholics of other ethnicities sought their own cultural identities while assimilating the American character. Cardinal Seán O'Malley, of course, is a wonderful model in this regard, as he has always been dedicated to ministering to immigrant groups, beginning with the Hispanic and Portuguese communities from his days as a young Capuchin priest in Washington, D.C.

But when an American nun visited our late great Cardinal Cushing seeking funds for her Catholic college in Uruguay, as Msgr. John Tracy Ellis reports, "she was cut short by the remark, 'I don't give a damn about Latin America.' Mother Eleanor McGloin had her wits about her that day, for she immediately retorted, 'I don't give a damn either, Your Eminence, but I am giving my life for this cause.' She had struck precisely the right note, for he declared, 'Good for you, Sister, I'll give you $100,000."

Cardinal Cushing rectified his initial reaction.

I know how Cardinal Cushing felt, as I've often thought that I'd do anything for Latin America except read about it. We Americans, in spite of our position of leadership in the world, are very nationalistic, and oftentimes woefully and even willfully ignorant of other peoples' languages, cultures and traditions. I recognize something of the Know-Nothing in myself.

Recently Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where a number of immigrants from Africa were detained. Over the past couple of decades, around 20,000 such boat people drowned trying to reach Europe. The pope asked, "Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? All of us respond, 'It wasn't me. I have nothing to do with it. It was others, certainly not me.'"

"The culture of well-being, which leads us to think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of others," he continued. "Who among us has wept'' for the immigrants? "The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep."

Archbishop Gomez' book reminds us that, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent that they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin."

While recognizing that particular immigration policies are subject to debate, Gomez urges a profound Christian perspective, one that is true to the best American traditions like the welcoming inscription on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The book ''Immigration and the Next America'' is in the fine tradition of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ''Letter from the Birmingham Jail'' (1963).

Obviously, laws and politics play a part, but Gomez reminds us that it is vital that our laws and politics be imbued with Christ's affirmation of human equality and solidarity: "I was a stranger, and you took me in."

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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