Put together more than 400 men, all with opinions. Even while bound by Catholic teaching, there will be disagreements. But on at least one hot-button issue, the votes are in, and it’s unanimous. The US bishops are pro-immigrant. While our current administration promises border walls and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, and some Catholics have cheered, the bishops disagree. They say that immigrants are good for the Catholic Church, good for the country, and, in any case, deserving of dignity, a concern frequently raised by their boss, Pope Francis.
Ministering along the Border
For many bishops, immigration is more than a political debate. It is integral to their daily ministry; it is right at their doorstep. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, knows the immigration issue firsthand, leading a diocese that includes that state’s long, and sometimes tortuous, border with Mexico.
Bishop Kicanas regularly celebrates Mass, often with bishops from both sides of the border, sometimes offering Communion through border fences in towns such as Nogales, Naco, and Douglas. The regular liturgies are a vivid symbol that the Church is on the side of immigrants, no matter their legal status, and is willing to stand with them on either side of the border.
For Bishop Kicanas, a Chicago native of Lebanese background, the issue came to the forefront soon after he got to Arizona 14 years ago. On a visit to Mexico, he observed a dozen young men praying the rosary, seeking the help of Mary to protect them as they traveled north.
Later, he spied a van on the US side, filled with young people, including some of the young men he saw in Mexico. The incident illustrated, said Bishop Kicanas, that “they are people of faith, people like us.” During a tour to the Middle East with Catholic Relief Services, he saw the refugee crisis there and made the connection to the Arizona-Mexico border. “It’s a world issue today,” he says, noting that “the reaction around the world and our diocese are similar.”
Perhaps at no time since World War II has immigration been such a worldwide controversy. In the Diocese of Tucson, many Catholics are sympathetic to the plight of migrants, seeing them as people trying to support their families or flee unsafe situations in their home countries.
Still, the bishop acknowledges, “others feel threatened, and feel their world will be overwhelmed. The fears are important to understand.” Raised in a Chicago parish where most of his Catholic schoolmates were of Polish background, Bishop Kicanas said he learned early on to be quiet about his Lebanese origins.
The focus was on assimilation, and that often took the form of hiding his ethnic roots. Now there are other kinds of demands for assimilation, sometimes taking the form of outright hostility. Perhaps the tension is felt in Arizona more than any other state. Along the border, signs mark the entrenched positions. Some read, “Get Out, You Are Not Welcome.” Others plead, “Have a Heart, Welcome!” Unfortunately, it is all too common to hear reports of immigrants dying in the Arizona desert on their way north, unable to survive the harsh elements.
The situation along the border remains in flux, notes Bishop Kicanas. The height of Mexican immigration passed because jobs in the United States became tougher to get after the Great Recession of 2008 and as the Mexican economy has improved. Now the major concern is with Central Americans, who cut through Mexico on their way to the United States. Many are teenagers and children, forced out of countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras to avoid being forced into drug gangs that provide cocaine for the United States and other markets.
The Church’s support through these changing issues remains steadfast, however. On the Mexican side, there are way stations for those who have been sent back, offering time and space to determine where they will go next.
Integration and Cooperation
Immigration, however, is more than a border issue. Most bishops regularly deal with immigrants who have settled into life in the United States, whether they are here with or without legal permission. In a number of those dioceses, immigration has transformed the Catholic landscape.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida, leads that archdiocese where, of 110 parishes, only 17 are led by pastors born in the United States. “My priests are mostly immigrants, but so are my people,” he says. Dinner guests at the archbishop’s house who call for a cab can hear him converse with the city’s Haitian drivers. He is fluent in Haitian Creole after years of ministry to the Haitian community there.
Archbishop Wenski’s career has focused on immigrants. The son of a Polish immigrant who came to Florida from Michigan, he learned Spanish in the seminary. And, after he was ordained a priest in 1976, he was assigned to minister to newly arriving South Florida Haitians. As a native of South Florida, the archbishop can trace the development of the region through various waves of immigrants.
In the 1960s there were the Cubans escaping Castro, as well as Americans from other parts of the nation fleeing winter. Later there were the Haitians.
Today, Miami is a truly international city, filled with those whose roots are in Latin America and the entire world. The changes have transformed the region and made Miami’s Catholics, both immigrant and nonimmigrant, tolerant of ethnic diversity. “I don’t feel a strong anti-immigrant feeling in this community because almost everyone is an immigrant,” he says.
Archbishop Wenski sees Miami as an example to the rest of the country. He suggests there is little to be anxious about. “After 30 years of immigration, the Cuban kids and the Haitian kids are as American as any others. Their families are integrating into the American culture,” he says.
In the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores regularly sees cooperation, not confrontation, around immigration issues as well. While massive immigration is new to many parts of the country, it is an old story in his diocese, which borders Mexico on the Rio Grande. Mexican Americans there can trace their family histories back before Texas became a US state. They are part of the landscape.
It is a region, says the bishop, where people float interchangeably between English and Spanish. In fact, he routinely gives homilies in both languages. Bishop Flores embodies the Tex-Mex mix. He is from up the coast in Corpus Christi. His parents were raised along the Texas side of the border, near Laredo. His father was a World War II US military veteran, and his grandparents were born in Mexico. In the Diocese of Brownsville, Bishop Flores notes there is support around immigration issues.
The diocese runs a resettlement center for Central American refugees near the bus station in McAllen. The center assists mothers and children who are escaping gang violence in their home countries, including northern Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Support, including volunteer doctors and nurses, comes from all over the country, as well as food and clothing. “There’s a human response where the Church is,” says the bishop, in sharp contrast to “the politics that tends to dehumanize the situation of the immigrants.” Bishop Flores says outsiders tend to have erroneous impressions about the nature of today’s immigrants in the region. They come through South Texas, he says, not for jobs but for security, because the criminal gangs in Central America and in northern Mexico have made life unbearable for families.
Reflecting the Pope’s Example
The bishops’ immigration stance still attracts critics. They contend that the bishops are milking the issue, hoping that by being seen as a champion of immigrants, the Church, as a kind of multinational corporate actor, can gain market share in the United States at a time when many native-born Catholics have drifted away.
Writer John Zmirak, in The American Spectator, reflects that view: “US Catholic leaders gain enormously from the influx of millions of Latin Americans.
"They refill the emptying pews in our parishes—which are manifestly failing to pass along the faith,” he writes.
Zmirak notes that a 2015 Pew study indicates that 41 percent of adult American Catholics leave the Church at some point, and relatively few ever come back.
Without the influx of immigrants, the Catholic Church in the United States, say Zmirak and other critics of the bishops, would be a much smaller and more graying Church.
Additionally, immigrants are becoming a bigger portion of the American Catholic scene. According to a Pew report, more than a quarter of American Catholics are foreign born and 15 percent have at least one foreign-born parent.
Zmirak and other critics believe that the influence of the Catholic bishops would wane considerably without this increasing number of immigrants. However, the bishops counter they are following the teachings of the Church and Pope Francis. The pope is focused on mercy, and perhaps his greatest focus on mercy is toward those who are migrants all over the world.
The pope’s own parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina; it is a cause dear to his heart and a subject he speaks about passionately. Famously nonjudgmental, the pope considers kindness to immigrants essential in the road to salvation.
The first trip Pope Francis took as pope was to Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, an island where African immigrants seeking to enter Europe have been left to languish.
Later, he visited the Greek island of Lesbos, another island where refugees from Africa continue to cluster, awaiting a chance to enter the European mainland. “We must never forget . . . that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names, and individual stories,” he said.
The pope offered a similar message during his February 2016 visit to Mexico, which included a trip to the US border. There he spoke to people in both countries at the same time.
The message was clear: immigrants should not be scapegoats for social and economic problems. The US bishops, perhaps with a more diplomatic style, have long taken a similar view.
Inspiration to Seek Reform
This viewpoint finds its roots in our country’s history. Most American Catholics have an immigration story. When this nation was founded, it was almost exclusively Protestant.
The Church would never have grown here without immigrants. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, is another bishop welcoming the
changes to his diocese while also hoping for some needed reforms.
He leads a crowded diocese known for being a totally urban stretch of two counties, the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, with an
estimated 1.5 million Catholics. About half are immigrants; almost everyone else is a second- or third-generation American. In the diocese’s 196 parishes, 107 offer Mass in
Spanish. Additionally, there are an estimated 30 different languages offered for Mass in the diocese, including Korean, Chinese, and Tagalog, a language of the Philippines.
Bishop DiMarzio came to Brooklyn in 2003, well suited to Brooklyn’s immigrant population. A native of Newark, New Jersey, the bishop grew up in a largely Italian neighborhood at a time when immigration from Italy had slowed and assimilation was the order of the day.
All four of his grandparents were immigrants, and he grew up learning the family stories around immigration. One relative came to the United States as a teenager, buying newspapers to pad his jacket to shield him from the winter cold.
After being ordained a priest in 1970, Bishop DiMarzio spent much of his ministry on immigration concerns. This interest led him to pursue a social work doctorate, which included his dissertation profiling undocumented immigrants in the New York metropolitan area.
For six years he worked with Migration Relief Services for the US bishops in Washington and once led the Archdiocese of Newark Migration Office. In a commencement address last year at St. John’s University in New York, Bishop DiMarzio, now one of the US bishops’ top experts on immigration, spelled out a call for immigration reform.
“We cannot deport 11 million people, nor should we, since they have made significant contributions to our labor needs and social fabric,” said the bishop.
Whether here legally or illegally, the Church makes no distinction in its ministry. “We are dealing with people,” he says in an interview. “People come here illegally because there are no other ways to come.”
Bishop DiMarzio is quick to point out how many misconceptions exist about US immigration history.
First is the complaint that previous generations of immigrants arrived legally, compared to so many today who are undocumented. That was true, notes the bishop, because in previous generations there was such a wide opportunity. At many times in American history, illegal immigration was practically nonexistent because there were so few restrictions. Before 1924, there were few laws—only a basic health screening and a promise to obtain a sponsor—that held them back.
And then the great counterreaction to immigration occurred. Much of that was directed at Catholic groups, particularly Italians.
From 1924 until World War II, legal immigration was stifled, due in part to the Great Depression, which did not encourage foreign job seekers.
Immigration, says Bishop DiMarzio, “brings new life, new hope, new people” to the country. Immigrants, he says, “come to succeed. They are the risk takers, they want to start anew.”
A Call to Service
Some of those individuals arriving today are refugees, and Bishop Flores of Texas notes that the Church’s involvement with immigrants extends to these political refugees, many of whom are not Catholics. When his state rescinded its support for the federal refugee program, the Church in Texas continued it, despite opposition. The recipients come from countries where there are many Catholics and those that have few.
The bishops, says Bishop Flores, believe in the principle that it’s a Christian obligation to welcome the stranger fleeing persecution and seeking a home, whether the newcomers are Catholics or not. Bishops point out that immigration used to be a concern in a handful of states. Now it is a national issue.
In North Carolina and Virginia, where large numbers of Latinos have settled, and Minnesota, where Somalis and other Africans are now numerous, the Church is ministering to immigrants after generations of largely serving an exclusively native-born population.
In regard to security, Church teaching affirms that nations have the right to regulate their borders. But bishops argue that the United States can do a better job at screening out serious criminals while allowing the flow of needed workers and family unification to go on in an orderly way.
“We need a legal immigration reform,” says Bishop Flores. Such a reform in the law would include principles based upon family reunification.
When children are separated from their parents, “you create more chaos,” he says, echoing a theme of Pope Francis. Workers, both immigrants and
nonimmigrants, should be protected from exploitation. The politics of immigration reform is a partisan thicket through which the bishops have been waiting for years to move forward. Until reform happens, however, Catholics will be asked to respond on the human level.
And they are responding in many places, like those in Bishop Flores’ Diocese of Brownsville. The bishop sees the support from all over that migrants are getting in his diocese, particularly the center supported by the Church in McAllen. There, migrants are offered a shower, some food, and bus directions to their families across the United States.
“It’s a great blessing to see that cooperation,” he says. While the bishops will remain players in the politics of immigration reform, Bishop Flores notes, “The Church’s first response is to the people.”