(Archbishop Gomez delivered this talk at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 2017)
It is great to be here. And I’m glad I missed the snow last week! It is still a little pretty cold for someone from Los Angeles. But you have given me a warm welcome. So thank you for that.
I am honored to be invited here by my friend, President Garvey.
He asked me if I would come tonight to speak with you about immigration and the debates we are having right now in our country over immigration.
This is a topic that is close to my heart. Immigration is also deeply personal for me.
I was born in Monterrey, Mexico and I came to this country as an immigrant. I have relatives who have been living in what is now Texas since 1805, when it was still under Spanish rule. So my immigrant roots — run deep. I have been an American citizen for more than 20 years now.
And migrants and refugees have always been close to the heart of my ministry. I have been a priest and a bishop for almost 40 years — in Texas, Colorado and now in California. And most of that time, I have been in conversation and working with immigrants and advocating for their rights and dignity.
So tonight I want to share some of my perspectives.
Something else I should point out — it is obvious, but I need to say that I am not a politician. I am a pastor. So when I talk about immigration, my perspective is different. For me, and for the Catholic Church in this country, immigration is about people. It is about families. We are talking about souls, not statistics.
I want to begin by telling you about my ministry in Los Angeles. I think that is a good way to introduce the issues that are involved in immigration.
Then I want to talk about some of the principles that I believe should guide our conversations and debates about immigration reform.
But then I want to devote most of my time with you to talking about what I believe the real issue is here in these debates. And that is the meaning of America.
Then we should have time for some conversation and questions. If that’s all ok with you — let’s begin.
Los Angeles, A Culture of Encounter
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles we are, in many ways, a culture of immigrants, a culture of encounter.
We are the largest Catholic community in the United States and the most diverse — in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, economic status and even geography.
There are about 5 million Catholics in Los Angeles. About 70 percent are Latinos. But we celebrate Mass and carry out our ministries in more than 40 different languages. We have people from every country in Latin America, from Asia, from Africa and the Middle East.
It is a beautiful place, L.A., where you really see the faith of the immigrant peoples. The Church is alive here — and active. And we are really a Church of immigrants.
We also have more than 1 million undocumented persons living within the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
So the issues of immigration reform and deportations take on a daily urgency for me.
And that brings me to my second topic.
Principles for Immigration Reform
There is no institution in America that devotes more care and more service to our immigration populations than the Catholic Church — through our charities, ministries, schools and parishes.
And there is simple reason for that. Immigrants are the Church. These are our people, our families. So our principles on immigration concentrate on people.
Our first principle is obvious. Every immigrant is a human person, a child of God.
This is true for every person, no matter who that person is or what that person has done. No matter what country that person came from. Or how that person got here. Legal or illegal. A person is a child of God even if he does not have the proper papers. And that person is our brother or our sister.
The second Catholic principle is that immigration should keep families together.
One of the problems we have today is that our deportations are breaking up families. Twenty-five percent of all the deportations in recent years have involved removing a father or a mother from their families. And we are not talking about violent criminals.
Nobody disputes that we should be deporting violent criminals.
But I do not believe there is any public policy purpose that is served by taking away some little girl’s dad or some little boy’s mom. We are breaking up families and punishing kids for the mistakes of their parents. And that’s not right.
The third principle for the Church is that every nation should have secure borders and every nation should be able to regulate how many people we let into our country, who they are, and how long they are allowed to stay.
Nobody is “for” illegal immigration or “open borders.” Nobody.
So those are our Catholic principles.
Now. The politics.
Everybody right now knows that our immigration system is totally broken and needs to be fixed. It has been broken for a long time. For many years our country did not enforce its immigration laws. Why not? Because American businesses were demanding “cheap” labor. So government officials looked the other way.
Something to think about. We have 11 million undocumented people living in this country. They didn’t just get here overnight.
Most of these 11 million have been living in this country for 5 years or more. About 66 percent have been here for at least a decade. And almost half of all undocumented people in this country are living in homes with a spouse and children, and most of those children are American citizens because they were born here.
So, like I said, this problem did not just happen overnight.
Everybody knows what we need to do to fix the system. To fix the system we need to secure our borders. Then we need a coherent approach for granting visas and work permits so we can welcome immigrants who have the character and skills our country needs to grow. People agree on that.
Where we disagree is what we should do about the people who are living here in violation of our laws.
For several years now I have been saying that we need to recognize that we all share some of the blame for this broken immigration system.
Business is to blame. Government is to blame.
And you and I — we have responsibility, too. We “benefit” and depend every day on an economy that is built on the backs of undocumented workers. It is just a fact. Immigrants grow our food, they serve us in our restaurants; they clean our rooms and our offices, they build our homes.
There is a lot of blame to go around. But we aren’t putting business owners in jail or punishing government workers who didn’t do their job.
The only people we are punishing is the undocumented workers. They are the only ones.
We have them living in a vast underclass in our society — without true rights or freedoms, and always they are living with the threat of deportation.
That is not fair. It is cruel, actually. These are just ordinary moms and dads — just like your parents — who want to give their kids a better life.
My proposal for many years is that we should require the undocumented to pay a fine or do community service for breaking our laws. We should require them to be learning English and holding a job that pays taxes.
But after we impose these punishments for breaking our laws, we should give them some clarity about their lives. Personally, I believe we should give them a chance to become citizens. Other people disagree.
But no matter what — we need to give these people some way for them to “normalize” their status. They should be able to raise their children in peace, without the fear that one day we will change our minds and deport them.
I think this is approach strikes a balance of law and love. It is a policy that provides justice and mercy.
And believe it or not — there is a broad public support for these kind of solutions.
So the question is — why are we still debating this issue? Why has it been more than 10 years now and our leaders still cannot agree on immigration reform legislation?
The answer is my third point. And that is what I really want to talk to you about, tonight.
Immigration is about More than Immigration
I want to repeat that: immigration is about more than immigration. As I said, if it was just a question of policy reforms, we would have solved these issues a long time.
But the fact is — that immigration is a question about America. What is America? What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and what is this country’s mission in the world?
I think we all realize nation of immigrants. There are probably very few people here tonight who are indigenous Americans. Maybe a few.
Almost all of us in this room today can trace our roots to some foreign country where our ancestors came from.
That is true for almost all Americans. We need to remember that when we are talking about immigration. All of us come from someplace else.
Now, America has been divided over immigration many times in our history.
We are a nation of immigrants, it is true. But immigration to this country has never been easy.
We just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last week. It’s almost a national holiday in our country. But a century or so ago — the Irish were hated and feared. The same things you hear people say about Mexicans today — they were saying about the Irish back then.
The truth is that with each new wave of immigration has come suspicion, resentment and backlash. And I think part of the problem is the way we tell the story of America.
You all know what you learned in American history. Right?
Right now, the story we tell about America starts right here on the East Coast — Washington, New York, Boston, Philadelphia. We remember the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War.
We talk about Washington, Jefferson, Madison.
It’s a beautiful story. It’s all true. Every American should know these characters, and the principles they fought for.
But this isn’t the whole story.
And because we don’t teach the whole story — we have a distorted impression. We think that America was founded only by white, Proesteant Europeans. And that means only people from those countries really “belong.”
And that is why we hear the kind of language and rhetoric we hear in our debates today.
We hear warnings all the time from politicians and the media — that immigration from Mexico and Latin America is somehow changing our American “identity” and “character.”
I hear these arguments and I think — what American identity are we talking about?
There has been a Hispanic presence and influence in this country from the beginning, since about 40 years after Columbus.
For me — American history begins with Our Lady of Guadalupe.
You know that story. She appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531. And she left her image on his tilma, his cloak. A beautiful image of her face — she appeared as meztiso young woman. That cloak is still hanging in the basilica in Mexico City. And in Los Angeles, in our Cathedral we have a relic of the tilma. I think it might be the only relic of the tilma outside of Mexico City.
And for me, this relic is one of the greatest artifacts of American history. Because the Christian identity of the Americas — the spiritual foundation of our nations — finds its heart in Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It is interesting that — within a decade of her appearance — the Christian faith spread from Mexico throughout North and South America. It is amazing the numbers of missionaries and the way the faith grew.
That is part of our country’s history. The truth is that long before George Washington — there were missionaries and explorers here from Spain and Mexico.
The first Asians, from the Philippines, started arriving in California — about 50 years before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock.
Do you know when the first Thanksgiving really was?
The first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated by Spanish missionary priests in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1565. That’s about a half century before the Pilgrims.
It’s a beautiful story — and if you are interested in this history, I wrote a little book about it a few years ago. It’s called, “Immigration and the Next America.” So check it out.
From the time of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Hispanic missionaries were shaping this country, giving names to the rivers and the mountains and their towns — all over this country.
We don’t think about it today. Sacramento is the capital of California. What does that name mean? It is Spanish for the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrament.
Los Angeles, where I am from — it is named for the Holy Angels. Think about Corpus Christi and Santa Fe in Texas. The list could go on all night.
Something we should think about: the first non-indigenous language spoken in this country was not English. It was Spanish. We need to really think about what the means.
Now. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I am not denying that America’s laws, our institutions and cultural traditions — were defined and shaped by our Anglo-Saxon and Protestant European ancestors.
What I am saying is that we can no longer afford to tell a story of America that excludes the rich inheritance of Latinos and Asians.
Our story today is not only incomplete and inaccurate. This story cannot unite us and inspire us — in an America that is changing.
The truth is that the “face” of America is changing. We cannot deny it or turn back the clock. America is more and more becoming a beautiful collection of peoples from around the world.
We need to welcome these peoples and we need to tell our story in a new way that includes “their stories.” Latinos, Asians, Africans. They all have to be part of this story.
We need a story of our spiritual roots — a story that honors both our Hispanic Catholic missionary and immigrant beginnings in the South and in the West and one that at the same time honors the Protestant founders who settled in the North and the East.
Let me try to conclude.
Immigration reform is one of the great issues of our day. It’s about more than politics and economics. It is a struggle for justice, dignity and human rights. It is a challenge to the conscience of every individual.
And my point tonight is that I believe immigration reform is also spiritual issue — it is a test of our faith, our humanity and our compassion. And the questions it raises go to the heart of America’s national identity and purpose in the world.
I want to leave you by telling you about a figure that you maybe never heard of in American history class.
St. Junípero Serra. There is a statue of him in the U.S. Capitol building. I was just there last week to see it a couple weeks ago.
Now, St. Junípero Serra was a Hispanic, an immigrant from Spain by way of Mexico. He was one of the founders of Los Angeles.
When you read his letters, you find this deep love for the Native peoples of this country. He writes beautiful things about the environment and the natural world.
And he is also one of the first people on this continent to write about social justice and human rights.
I believe he was the first person in the Americas to defend the dignity of women.
And he was the first person in the Americas — and maybe in all of the universal Church — to make a theological and moral argument against the death penalty. You should check that out. It would make a good paper for your history class or your theology class.
At a time when many still denied the “humanity” of the Native peoples, Father Junípero drew up a “bill of rights” for them.
And, incidentally, St. Junípero wrote his bill of rights — three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.
Most Americans today do not know that. But Pope Francis knows that. That’s why he canonized St. Junípero right here — not far from where we are tonight — in 2015. I had the beautiful joy to celebrate that Mass with the Pope.
Pope Francis said St. Junípero was one of this country’s “founding fathers.”
I dream of a day when we take that seriously. Because if we took that seriously — it would change how we understand our country’s history, and America’s identity and mission.
So some last words.
America has always been a nation of immigrants with a missionary soul.
Our founders dreamed of a nation where men and women from every race, religion and national background could live in equality — as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.
Their vision helped make this a great nation. We are blessed with freedom and goodness and generosity and committed to sharing our blessings with the whole human race.
That is what’s at stake in our immigration debate — the future of this beautiful American story.
Our national debate is really a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul.
So thank you for listening tonight. May God bless you and your families and may God bless this great country.
I look forward to a hearing what you think.