Hispanic American Bishops Write Letter to 'Undocumented Immigrants'

'Instead of receiving our thanks' for hard work, 'you are often treated as criminals,' say writers, including L.A. Archbishop Gomez.

Mexican migrant workers load boxes of organic cilantro during the fall harvest at a farm in Wellington, Colo., in October.
Mexican migrant workers load boxes of organic cilantro during the fall harvest at a farm in Wellington, Colo., in October. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

The Catholic Church in the United States stands with undocumented immigrants, declares a letter written by 33 of the nation’s Hispanic bishops.

The letter, released on Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, says the Church sees the suffering face of Jesus in the tribulations of immigrants.

Addressing themselves to those “who lack proper authorization to live and work in our country,” the bishops declare their solidarity with immigrants, promising them that they are not alone or forgotten.

“Many of you perform the most difficult jobs and receive miserable salaries and no health insurance or Social Security. Despite your contributions to the well-being of our country, instead of receiving our thanks, you are often treated as criminals because you have violated current immigration laws,” the bishops said.

“We recognize that every human being, authorized or not, is an image of God and therefore possesses infinite value and dignity. We open our arms and hearts to you and we receive you as members of our Catholic family.”

The letter’s signatories include Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Sacramento, Calif., Bishop Jaime Soto and St. Augustine, Fla., Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estevez.

Immigrant advocates and those who call for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States praised the bishops’ letter as a prophetic document that fights against the dehumanization of migrants in the often contentious national debate over immigration policy.

“With honesty and humility, in its expression of solidarity with the migrant, this letter, I believe, is a summons to a deeper conversation about migration than what we’ve had in the public forum,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, a University of Notre Dame professor who has written extensively about and produced documentaries on immigration.

“It is a statement to the Church community, and to our leaders in political office, to see immigration not just in terms of economic and political issues, but also the human issues,” Father Groody said in a telephone interview.

“I’m blown away by this letter. It’s a powerful statement of faith and a powerful statement of solidarity,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a lobbying organization that favors immigration policies allowing a path to citizenship.

“It’s the kind of letter that suggests that many leaders in the Church are going to get more militant in their defense of illegal immigrants,” Sharry said.

Left, Right and Center

If so, that would be problematic, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit organization that opposes illegal immigration and seeks to improve border security.

“If we allow everyone around the world who really, really wanted to come here to the United States, it would negatively impact everyone’s life here. What the bishops are advocating is something unjust to the American people,” Mehlman said.

Mehlman said the bishops view the immigration issue solely from the perspective of the migrant, while not taking into consideration that all nations have immigration laws and quotas to preserve their national interests. He said the bishops’ letter ignores the reality that many people break laws when they cross borders illegally and that their presence strains public services funded by taxpayers.

“What the bishops are saying is that someone has to give up their job to someone who will work for less money,” Mehlman said. “They’re asking people to make sacrifices, to pay for these people’s medical needs and education expenses; sacrifices that they haven’t agreed to. That’s not charity.”

Catholics of a conservative political bent often criticize the bishops for their immigration stance. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic Republican presidential candidate, told The Des Moines Register on Dec. 12 that the bishops were wrong to call for comprehensive immigration reform that would include an earned path to legalization. He said the United States must enforce its own laws.

“If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested, we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more; we’d be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently,” Santorum said.

But the letter is pastoral, said Maria Muñoz-Visoso, assistant director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The bishops as pastors are concerned as well for all immigrants, documented or not, Hispanic or not,” she said.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and Catholic convert who is also seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has drawn criticism from conservative corners for his attempts at navigating a middle path on immigration.

Gingrich called for a more “humane” approach, saying that the American people would not tolerate deportations of people who have often lived in their community for 20 years or more, raised children and belong to the local church. Gingrich has proposed creating citizen review boards to determine whether undocumented immigrants should be eligible for residency permits.

Still, under his plan, Gingrich told the CBS Sunday morning program Face the Nation on Dec. 18 that only about 1 million undocumented immigrants would be allowed to stay in the United States. The remaining 10 million or so people would have to return to their countries of origin and obtain a guest or worker permit to return.

’We are All Migrants’

The bishops’ letter said that any new immigration laws should include a program for worker visas that respect the migrants’ human rights, provides for their basic needs and ensures that they enter the United States and work in a safe and orderly manner. The bishops vowed to also advocate on behalf of global economic justice, so that migrants can find employment in their own countries that offer a living wage to allow them to live with dignity.

The bishops also advised immigrants to seriously reconsider their plans to migrate to the United States in the absence of just immigration laws. The letter added that the bishops are aware of the pain felt by families who have experienced deportation of their loved ones. The bishops said they sympathize with the anxiety of those who live under the daily threat of deportation and the lack of opportunities and legal protection for undocumented youth and young adults who have grown up here.

“This situation cries out to God for a worthy and humane solution,” the bishops said.

“The bishops have taken the initiative to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable. They are providing a light in what is right now a dark period in this nation’s history,” Father Groody said.

“The new normal is how you can dehumanize undocumented immigrants by painting them all with a broad brush of criminality,” said Sharry, who added: “This letter has the feel of being one of those documents that we’ll be reading in 30 or 40 years and recognize it as a departure from the norm, and a recognition of what solidarity means when considering oppressive policies toward migrants.”

“I think the bishops’ courage will be vindicated,” Sharry said.

Mehlman said he sympathizes with migrants who cross borders without documents to seek better lives, but added that nations have an interest in enforcing their laws. He noted that law enforcement routinely separates families when police arrest people for committing crimes.

“In all other areas of law enforcement, we hold the person responsible for breaking the law, not the law itself,” said Mehlman.

Nevertheless, the bishops vowed to continue their advocacy for migrants, whom the bishops wrote mirror Jesus the pilgrim, who emigrated with Mary and Joseph to Egypt as a refugee, migrated from Galilee to Jerusalem for the sacrifice of the cross, and finally emigrated from death to life in the Resurrection and Ascension to heaven.

Jesus, the bishops wrote, “continues to journey and accompany all migrants on pilgrimage throughout the world in search of food, work, dignity, security and opportunities for the welfare of their families.”

“You reveal to us the supreme reality of life,” the bishops said. “We are all migrants.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.