The American dream is at stake in the debate over immigration reform, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles told a group of journalists, saying the issue provides a chance for the nation to renew its soul.
“Our national debate about immigration is a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul,” the Mexican-born American citizen said June 21 at the Catholic Media Conference in Denver. “It’s also a defining historical moment for America, a moment for national renewal.”
He told those who are engaged in media as a “witness of service to the Church” that the need for immigration reform is, he believes, “the most pressing issue that we face in American public life.”
“There are times in the life of a nation that are a trial. We are living in one of those times,” he declared. “How we respond to the challenge of illegal immigration will measure our national character and conscience in this generation.”
Archbishop Gomez reminded his listeners that most Americans have forgotten their immigrant roots, even though both the Catholic Church and the U.S. have been always based on immigrants.
Since the Church in America is one of immigrants, the immigration debate is indeed one “about the future of the Church and our Catholic people,” he said.
Most Latin-American immigrants are Catholic, he noted, adding that members of the faith “need to help our neighbors see that immigration is about more than immigration.”
“Immigration,” he emphasized, “is a question about America.”
During his remarks, Archbishop Gomez addressed the root of the immigration debate by asking the questions that underlie the issue: “What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people, and where are we heading as a country? What will the 'next America' look like? What should the next America look like?”
The archbishop noted G. K. Chesterton's comment that the U.S. is the only nation founded not on a material basis, such as territory or race, but on a belief, a vision.
The Founding Fathers, the writers of the Declaration of Independence, envisioned a nation “where men and women from every race, religion and national background could live in equality.”
“In earlier generations, we welcomed newcomers from every nation in Europe,” he said, and, now, American immigrants are overwhelmingly coming from Latin America and Asia.
The belief that America was to be a place of equality created a nation of “flourishing diversity” through immigration, he noted. “That’s what’s at stake in the immigration debate: the future of the American dream.”
The American dream has always been “a work in progress ... not fully delivered,” Archbishop Gomez told his listeners. Slavery, nativism and race discrimination have always been blights upon that dream, the reality of which has been both “painful and partial.”
Yet that American dream, which is beautiful and universal, despite its imperfect reality, “has always formed our conscience.”
The vision of the Founding Fathers has caused reform in the areas of slavery, civil rights, farm workers' rights and the pro-life movement. The recognition of the human dignity of slaves, of people of color, of farm workers and of unborn children should awaken our consciences, enabling us “to open our hearts to the 11 million people who are living here without authorization.”
Instead of having open hearts to admittedly illegal immigrants, Archbishop Gomez said America has been addressing the issue with discrimination, race-based criminal profiling, random identity checks, commando-style raids of workplaces and homes and arbitrary detentions.
America has forgotten that illegal immigration “is no ordinary crime,” he emphasized, and that those labeled “illegals” are “the people next door” who hold down jobs and have kids in school.
“That’s what makes our response to this 'crime' so cruel,” said Archbishop Gomez. More than a million have been deported in the last four years, with thousands more being held without charge or representation in detention centers.
The desire to enforce American immigration law is leading us to break up families, the archbishop said. “We’re talking about fathers who, without warning, won’t be coming home for dinner tonight … about women suddenly left as single mothers to raise their children in poverty.”
Fully one-quarter of people who are deported have been taken away from an intact family, he noted.
“Since when has America become a nation that punishes innocent children for the sins of their parents?”
The American soul is becoming a force that deprives children of their parents, he said. “We need to stop ourselves. We are a better people than this.”
Catholics, the archbishop urged, “need to be the conscience of our nation. We need to help our neighbors to remember the founding vision of America: that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.”
“No matter where they come from or how they got here; no matter what kind of documents they have or don’t have.”
America is called, by the vision on which it was founded, to make room for a rich diversity of people, “speaking different languages, with different beliefs, customs and traditions.”
“Friends, I’ve studied this issue and prayed about it,” Archbishop Gomez concluded, “and I’ve come to this conclusion: Immigration reform offers us a special moment as a nation.”
“We have a chance to create a path to welcome millions of new Americans who would share our national ideals, beliefs and values. This new generation of immigrants promises to help renew the soul of America.”