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Our nation’s failure to address the immigration issue has led to a persistent air of crisis and a true humanitarian tragedy.

We need to remember that the United States of America has always been an immigrant nation. Our humanity and our nation will be judged by our response to this new generation of immigrants.

Immigration reform is an issue of conscience and national identity.

It is time for us to reject the angry voices in the media and all who would exploit this issue for their own partisan advantage. And we should be clear: both of the major political parties continue to be guilty of this.

It may be naïve to say that we should put people above politics. But if it is naïve, then that is a sad commentary on the state of our politics.

It may sound “reasonable” when politicians and media figures talk about building walls along our southern borders and sending federal agents out to round-up and deport those who have crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.

But the people they want to punish have become our neighbors. When we talk about “illegal immigrants,” we are talking about brothers and sisters with faces and names and families and stories — just like every one of us.

Most of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. have been living here for 5 years or more — two-thirds have been here for at least a decade. Almost half are living in homes with a spouse and children.

And right now we are deporting a lot of people — more than 2 million in recent years alone. Most are not violent criminals. In fact, up to one-quarter are mothers and fathers that our government is seizing from ordinary households.

We need to know these “numbers.” Because behind each of these numbers is a person with hopes and dreams and a family.

Politicians and media figures speak of “stanching the flow of illegal immigrants.” The reality is that in the name of enforcing our laws, we are deporting some little girl’s dad, some little boy’s mom.

No one is “for” illegal immigration. A sovereign nation has the obligation to secure its borders and determine who enters the country and how long they stay.

The current crisis is caused precisely because our government, at every level, has failed in its responsibilities — often motivated by businesses’ demands for “cheap” foreign-born labor.

There is plenty of blame to go around. All of us, to some extent, are benefitting every day from an economy of “illegal” workers. But deportation punishes only the vulnerable — ordinary parents who came here seeking a better life for their children.

After nearly two decades of debate here in the United States, there is actually a broad understanding of the issues and even a consensus about what needs to be done. Everyone knows that immigration follows the cycles of the global economy. And everyone agrees that our system is broken and needs to be modernized to reflect global realities.

There is also broad agreement on the basic outlines of authentic reform: We need reforms that secure our borders against illegal crossings and allow us to keep track of those living within our borders. We need reforms that enable us to welcome newcomers who have the character and skills our country needs to grow. We need to protect the rights of foreign-born workers.

There is even consensus on how to deal with the undocumented persons living among us. A Marist Poll commissioned last year by the Knights of Columbus found overwhelming support for granting them a generous path to citizenship, provided they meet certain requirements such as learning English, paying some fines and holding a job that pays taxes.

The consensus and the path forward are clear. What we are waiting for is politicians and media figures who have the will and the courage to lead.

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Death Penalty

It is time for us to end to the death penalty — not only in California, but throughout the United States and throughout the world.

Every life is sacred and every person has a dignity that comes from God. This is true for the innocent and it is true for the guilty. It is true even for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

We recognize that those on death row are not innocent. They have been convicted of grave evil. Not only have they taken the lives of their victims, they have caused deep and lasting trauma to their victims’ families, loved ones and neighbors.

In opposing the death penalty we are  witnessing to the sanctity of life. We are saying that even the most sinful and guilty lives are precious to God and should not be taken by others.

In seeking an end to the death penalty, we never forget the victims of crime and their loved ones. We entrust them to the Father of mercies and we pray that he grant them healing and peace. But we recognize that killing the criminal does not bring justice to the victims. Our country has far more effective ways to bring murderers to justice and to keep society safe from violent criminals.

Rather than condemn them to death, as Christians we should pray for their conversion and encourage their rehabilitation and ultimate restoration to society.

We are encouraged by the witness of saints like St. Augustine who urged authorities to show mercy in capital cases, and St. Therese of Lisieux prayed for the conversion of those on “death row.”

Of course, we are also inspired by the witness of Jesus Christ pardoning the woman caught in adultery — a crime that carried a mandatory death sentence.

 As Jesus taught, we know that life belongs to God alone and that there is no one who cannot be touched by God’s mercy and changed by his love.

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Human Life and Dignity

The  Gospel of life is not only the heart of the Gospel — it’s also the heart of the Church’s social witness. Everything we do is rooted in the beautiful truth that every human life matters — because every human life is sacred and created by the loving plan of God.

We are living in a culture that is deeply confused and conflicted about the meaning of creation and the meaning of human life. And so we find ourselves more and more indifferent to the cruelty and injustice that we see all around us.

This includes grave crimes against human life — widespread abortion at every stage, even in the final hours of a pregnancy; experimentation with human embryos; the “quiet” euthanasia of the old and sick.

But we can also talk about the injustice of racial discrimination; unemployment and homelessness; the pollution of our environment — especially in poor and minority communities. We can talk about the violence in our neighborhoods; the epidemic of drugs; the crisis of hope among our young people. The scandalous conditions in our prisons; the death penalty.

I am not trying to say that all of these issues are “equal.” They are not. And we always need to be clear about that.

The fundamental injustice in our society is the killing of innocent unborn life through abortion and the killing of the sick and defenseless through euthanasia and assisted suicide. If the child in the womb has no right to be born, if the sick and the old have no right to be taken care of — then there is no solid foundation to defend anyone’s human rights.

As the Church, we must call our society once more to rediscover the sanctity, the dignity and the transcendent destiny of the human person, who is created in the image of the Creator.

We need to show our neighbors — by our words and by our actions — that every human life is sacred and precious, because every human life is created out of love by God, who calls us to a personal relationship, to the vocation of being God’s children.

This is the beautiful challenge, the beautiful duty that we have. To serve the vulnerable and the poor. To spread God’s mercy and forgiveness, his healing and peace.

So let us to continue in our mission — to build the new culture of life in our times. Let us work to open people’s eyes to the beauty of creation, to the beauty of every human life, and to the source of all life in the love of our Creator.

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The "Latino Moment"

I think we all know that we are living in a “Latino moment.”

This is true in American society and culture. But it’s also true for us in the Catholic Church.

We have been distracted in our politics by the debates over immigration. Those debates are important and we need to fix our broken immigration system in a way that provides justice to the millions of undocumented brothers and sisters who are living within our borders.

But there is a larger reality. Our nation is changing.

Demographics are not destiny. But it is clear that America’s future — our economy and politics, our education system, our neighborhoods and churches — they are all being shaped by globalization, immigration and the encounter of cultures.

What America is, and what America will be, is changing. Our country more and more is being shaped by the contributions of Latinos, Asians and other immigrant groups.

One statistic is all we need to understand the future. About one-quarter of all American children under the age of 17 are Hispanic. And this is the reality in the Catholic Church, too. Latinos make up more than half of all Catholics under the age of 25.

As Latino leaders, we need to bring our faith and our moral commitments into the larger conversation about America’s future direction.

The renewal we need in this country is a renewal of the heart — a renewal of the spirit. This kind of renewal comes from knowing who we are. It comes from trying to become better people and trying to help others to see the beauty and dignity of human life. As Latino leaders, we need to be models of civic engagement and civic virtue. And we need to be leaders first of all in service — in serving our brothers and sisters in need and working for greater justice in our society.

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American Politics

Sadly, I see an America that is pulling apart and is increasingly divided by money, privilege and social class interest.

This is most obvious in the widening gap between those in our country who are prospering and those who are barely getting by. The distance between these groups is not only economic. It is cultural; it is a distance also of education levels, race, neighborhoods and family backgrounds.

Many of those at the “top” of American society — elites who govern and control the economy, media and education — now seem to be living in another America, disconnected from the struggles of the people below them. Many even seem to look down on ordinary Americans — as if their privileged status somehow makes them “better.”

Obviously, this does not apply to everybody. I see extraordinary generosity and acts of kindness from wealthy and influential people all the time, as I do from countless ordinary Americans.

But there is no denying that these divisions exist in American life. And they are growing as work, finance, and the production of goods and services becomes more globalized.

This fracturing of America is one of the sources for the “anti-establishment” frustration we see in this year’s elections. Millions feel like they are living on the edge — vulnerable, powerless and abandoned by their leaders. As if their lives don’t matter.

And it is a deeply troubling fact — that the families of those in charge do not have to live with the consequences of some of the policy decisions they make. We have come to accept an America where schools and infrastructure are crumbling and where drinking water is contaminated — not in neighborhoods where the elites live — but only in the communities of minorities and the poor.

At the heart of the discontent in American life, I see a confusion about the human person.

All the conversation and debate about identity and ethnicity is only masking a fundamental problem in our society — we don’t know anymore who we are, where we came from, or what we are made for. We don’t know what it means to be a human person.

Government exists to serve the person and to ensure the conditions in which persons can grow and flourish. If we don’t know what a person “is” or what a person is “for,” we risk becoming a society in which men and women are turned into material instruments to be exploited.

It is clear that we need a new politics — a politics of the heart that emphasizes mercy, love and solidarity. The disturbing signs in our public life are all the “fruits” of radical secularism and radical individualism.

So in these months and years to come, we need to be looking for new ways to advance the Gospel vision of solidarity and our shared humanity — that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the living God who loves us and has a plan of love for our lives.

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Religious Liberty

Catholics have always believed that we serve our country best as citizens when we are trying to be totally faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church. And since before the founding of the American Republic, Catholics — individually and institutionally — have always worked with government agencies at all levels to provide vital social services, education, and health care.

But lately, this is becoming harder and harder for us to do.

The Church faces an unprecedented challenge in the America that is emerging in the 21st century. This is perhaps the most disturbing sign for our nation’s future — the increasing hostility and discrimination against Christian institutions and the vilifying of Christian beliefs by the government, the courts, the media and popular culture. More and more in our country religious faith is being marginalized as something that is “personal” and “private.” Catholics and other believers face strong pressures to keep their faith to themselves and to live as if their beliefs should not have any influence on how they live in society or carry out their duties as citizens.

The aggressive secularization and “de-Christianizing” of America raises serious questions: Is religion just something personal that we “do” at home or in churches, temples and mosques? Or is religion a way of living that guides and directs everything we think and do? Can the government demand that we abandon our religious convictions as the “price” to be paid for participating in America’s economic and political life?

We cannot repeat this enough: these questions have implications for America’s future, for our freedom as citizens and believers, and for the Church’s mission in American society.

Our nation’s promise of freedom is rooted in the founders’ belief in our Creator who makes each of us and endows us with sacred dignity and rights that no one can take away. And America has always been distinguished by its commitment to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. This has led to a society that is incredibly diverse and that allows people of many different lifestyles and viewpoints to live together in peace.

The public witness and good works of religious people and religious institutions has shaped our social fabric — in areas ranging from education and health care to charity and the defense of civil rights and social justice. In our nation’s history, all our progress in social justice has been inspired by religious faith and built on the struggles and sacrifices of religious believers.

Christians led the efforts to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote. Churches and synagogues led the African American civil rights movement and the farmworkers’ movement. It was a book by a Catholic Worker, called “The Other America,” that launched the national “war on poverty” in the 1960s. Christians led the pro-life movement and peace movements.

Given this history, it is sad that Catholics and others are today forced to defend our basic right to live out our beliefs in our workplaces and in our political commitments. We need to remember that in our American system, we have a basic right to participate — as men and women of faith — in the debates and conversations that are shaping the direction and culture of our country.

We also need to keep in mind something that should be obvious — that the moral positions we hold based on our religious beliefs are just as valid as positions based on non-religious beliefs. The expression of our beliefs doesn’t hurt anybody or deny them their freedom or rights — even if our beliefs might make them feel uncomfortable or question their own beliefs.

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Christian Persecution

The story of Christianity is written in the blood of martyrs.

Persecution comes in many forms. We are relatively privileged here in the United States. In our country, we do not face violence. Instead, we deal with the “soft” persecution of those who want to banish Christianity from having any influence on our secular society. And it is becoming clear that in the years ahead, believers and Church institutions will face increasing pressures to abandon our beliefs as “the price” for living in our society.

But violence and torture are the daily cost of discipleship for Christians all over the world today — but especially in the Middle East and Africa. In many places in the world today, people can’t wear a crucifix or go to Mass or be seen reading a Bible in public. There are men, women and children being killed every day, for the “crime” of believing in Jesus.

The Islamic State has driven more than 150,000 Christians out of Iraq alone. The violence against Christians is as systematic as it is barbaric — Church leaders are assassinated, believers are murdered on a mass scale; there is torture, kidnapping for ransom, and the systematic rape and sex slavery of Christian women and girls; there are forced conversions to Islam, the destruction of churches, monasteries, and cemeteries, the theft of ordinary families’ homes and businesses.

We cannot imagine the reality, but it is true — the Christian presence may one day be extinguished in the lands where the light of faith first burned. And it is unimaginable and unconscionable that our government — along with most of the governments of the Western world — has remained silent while this martyrdom goes on.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department finally took the step of declaring the Islamic State’s war against Christians in the Middle East as a “genocide.”

The statement was long overdue — Pope Francis has been calling Christian persecution in the region a “genocide” for several years, recognizing that the Islamic State or ISIS is trying to drive the Christian population into extinction.

We are a universal Church, a worldwide family of God. That means when our brothers and sisters are suffering, even half way around the world, we need to come to their aid in solidarity and struggles alongside them for justice.