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COMMENTARY: Immigrants Are Us

WASHINGTON (RNS) Some have questioned the Catholic bishops’ involvement in the national debate over immigration, perhaps wanting the church to stay neutral. But if they did so, they’d be untrue to their roots.

WASHINGTON (RNS) More than any other organized religion in the United States, the Catholic Church is an immigrant church that has grown with the nation, welcoming successive generations of immigrants who have helped build our country. To borrow a phrase from a toy store, immigrants are us.

More recently, some have questioned the bishops’ involvement in the national debate over immigration, perhaps wanting the church to stay neutral. But if they did so, they’d be untrue to their roots.

The church and her institutions have welcomed and helped integrate into American life Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Central and Eastern Europeans who fled Europe after the Second World War; and Latin American and Asian populations more recently.

With each successive wave, the bishops defended the rights of newly arrived immigrants, arguing against nativist organizations that immigrants by and large added to the strength of our country by bringing unique skills, perspectives and traditions to our shores. These new arrivals, the bishops held, enriched our culture and way of life. Clearly they were right.

The same debates are playing out today, as immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa — the majority of them Catholic — are becoming part of U.S. society. And again, the Catholic Church stands in the forefront of defending their rights and dignity.

In defending undocumented immigrants, the bishops acknowledge the reality that immigrants are already here. The U.S. has drawn them with a magnet of jobs and the opportunity to earn 10 times more in a day than in their native lands. The undocumented immigrants, who work in important industries such as agriculture and service, want to migrate legally, but the 5,000 permanent visas for unskilled workers are clearly insufficient.

Immigrants are present in Catholic social service programs, hospitals, schools, and parishes; each day priests and other staff are approached by an immigrant asking for help for a loved one — a parent who has been detained, a child who has been involuntarily left behind by two deported parents, or a distraught family member who has lost a loved one in the desert. Without a change in our immigration laws, priests, employees, the laity or even the bishops often cannot help solve those problems or help keep their families together.

The outcome of the immigration debate will impact the future of the nation. Close to 5 million U.S. citizen children live in “mixed-status” households, where one or more parents are undocumented. Another 700,000 minors are without legal status, having been brought to the United States by their parents.

In many ways, they are the future leaders of our communities, parishes and nation, but they constantly live in fear of the knock at the door, when they and/or their parents will be taken away at a moment’s notice. Instead of developing their talents and building their confidence in this country, we are alienating them and squandering their potential. In many ways, we are shaking their faith in God.

As pastors, bishops and priests are charged with ensuring that all Catholics and those of good will have the opportunity to know God and to be with him. It is also an obligation of all Catholics. Advocating for immigration reform is yet another way for the Catholic clergy, joined by the Catholic faithful, to fulfill that responsibility.

Just as past waves of immigrants arrived to enrich, build and help lead our nation, so too will this generation — provided they receive the opportunity to reach their God-given potential. Reforming our immigration system and bringing them and their families out of the shadows will help set them, and us, on the right course.

(Kevin Appleby is director of policy at the Department of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)