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Immigration And the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation

by Angel Valdez

Reviewed by Mark and Louise Zwick

Amid discussions about comprehensive immigration reform our thoughts go to the people we know, especially the families which have been torn apart in recent years by an unprecedented number of deportations. Two-parent working families have suddenly become separated. Mothers and children now live in poverty and may not see their husband and father for a decade. There is something wrong with a system that takes advantage of the hard work of so many and then in the blink of an eye deports those same people.

Comprehensive immigration reform seems close and yet far. Much emotion around debates on immigration has clouded the discussions and slowed the work among politicians.

A new book written in a very readable style addresses the issues surrounding these discussions. It provides a perspective of the history of a nation of immigrants and the conflicts that have emerged during that history and explores Catholic teaching on immigration and hospitality to the stranger.

Discussion and debate on immigration is about much more than immigration, however. This is one of the key themes of a new book by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. Immigration and the Next America reminds us that discussions questions around immigration issues reflect deeper questions about American identity and ideals.

The archbishop, an immigrant himself and a naturalized citizen, has said he understands from his conversations with many people that their approaches to immigration issues are often shaped by their fears and anxieties about economics, about globalization, about terrorism, about where the country is going and concern about the very identity of the United States.

As he has noticed the angry tone of arguments about what to do about immigration however, Archbishop Gómez shares his own fear, a different fear, as he expresses it, that in our fear and anger, “we are losing our grip and perspective.” Speaking as a pastor, he says, “I fear we are losing something of our national soul.”

We Are a Nation Of Immigrants.

Archbishop Gomez chal-lenges us to better understand the whole narrative of America from the earliest colonial times. He recounts the history before and beyond the thirteen colonies with their white Protestant makeup so often featured alone in our history books.

Quoting John F. Kennedy’s book, A Nation of Immigrants, Gómez points out that even in those English colonies, welcoming the stranger was at the heart of the American experience. One of the grievances that America’s founders com-plained about was that King George III wouldn’t allow “the naturalization of foreigners” or “encourage their migrations.” George Washington, in a pro-clamation for Thanksgiving Day, prayed that God would make this country “more and more a propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries.”

The presence of Catholic missionaries and settlers in Florida and the U.S. Southwest and California in the century before the Jamestown colony is not so well known. As Gómez points out, “When America’s first president was still a toddler, Catholics were already operating charities, schools, hospitals, and or-phanages to serve America’s poor, a population that was mostly non-Catholic.”

It is fascinating to read of a different first Thanksgiving dinner in the New World in Florida with Spanish missionaries and Native Americans in 1565, long before the one usually mentioned in Plymouth colony in 1621.

Gómez contends that without the rest of the narrative of the Hispanic Catholics in the settlement and evangelization of the early United States, “we are left with a distorted idea of American identity and national culture. And at certain moments in American history, this incomplete sense of American identity has led to grave injustices.” The concern is that we are in one of those moments right now.

The book does not fail to mention the history of prejudice against immigrants because of race and religion and economic status. The forced emigration of slaves is often left out of discussions of immigration and of American ideals in general. The words of Abraham Lincoln regarding the perception of many Americans are a propos here:

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.’”

Special Responsibility of Catholics

Catholics, the Archbishop says, “as heirs to the first missionaries and the first wave of immigrants to this country,” have a particular responsibility in the debates on immigration, and the sacred obligation and duty to care for the stranger.

He outlines the tradition of hospitality to strangers in the Scriptures and the early Church, especially pointing out how Jesus identified himself with the poor, the stranger, and made our response to the stranger one of the essential criteria for being welcomed ourselves at the Last Judgment. “Put simply,” he says, “we care for the immigrant because Jesus commanded us to.”

What Are We Doing To Families?

Those who have not met many, or even any, immigrants, may not realize the tragedies taking place in families across the United States.  As Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles points out in his new book, Immigration and the Next America, “In the name of enforcing our laws, now we are breaking up families.”

“We say we are worried about the long-term social costs of illegal immigration. If we are, then we should be looking for every way possible to integrate the undocumented into our economy so that they do not become a permanent under-class of dependent people. Our policy today, unfor-tunately, is only helping that underclass grow in numbers. The underclass grows every time we break apart a family by deporting a working father and leaving women and children in poverty. We are creating the very conditions that we claim to be afraid of – a generation of people who can’t assimilate and who don’t have the education and skills to contribute to our economy.”

At the same time as we are deporting immigrants from the work force, our regular work force is shrinking and fewer and fewer people are available for difficult labor or to pay into social services like Social Security.

This book is important for understanding the deeper questions underlying the immigration debates as we face a critical moment in our history.

Archbishop Gómez makes some specific recommendations for the time both before and after a comprehensive immigration law can be passed.

Several good ideas stand out. One is a recommended moratorium on deportations, except for persons who are guilty of a violent or other serious crime while we wait for comprehensive immigra-tion reform. The second is to encourage economic reforms in Latin American countries that will include especially economic development to small businesses and small agriculture “so that people will not feel compelled to leave their families to seek jobs and money in in other countries.” A third is that while people should have to pay some penalty for being here without legal papers, the best penalty would be intense community service.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, September-October 2013.