Archbishop Gomez's Address to Jewish Leaders on Immigration Reform

«I’m worried we are losing something of our national soul»

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Here is the text of an address given last week by Los Angeles’ Archbishop José Gomez to the American Jewish Committee at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Los Angeles.

The title of the talk was «‘The Heart of a Stranger’: The Task for Religious Believers in Immigration Reform.»

Archbishop Gomez is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

* * *

Greetings my friends! Saludos mis amigos! Shalom! 

It’s a joy for me to be here. Thank you for your kind invitation. I’ve been looking forward to this evening. 

As you know this has been an exciting, historic time for those of us who are Catholics. At the end of last month our Pope, Benedict XVI, resigned. That’s the first time a Pope has stepped down in 600 years. Then last week, the College of Cardinals elected a new Pope, Pope Francis, who is an Argentinian. He is the first non-European Pope in almost 1,300 years — and the first Pope ever from the Americas. 

I think our new Pope is a fascinating man — I don’t know him very well — but he is the son of immigrants and is a humble and holy priest with a deep love for the poor. I think he is going to be a good spiritual leader for the Church and a strong moral leader in the international community promoting justice and the dignity of the human person. 

I also think you are going to find that this new Pope will be a good and faithful friend to the Jewish people. This is clear already from his record in Argentina. He has a long history of standing in solidarity with the Jewish community and he has long been active in interfaith dialogues and prayer. 

So I hope you will keep us all in your prayers at this new moment for our Church and our world. In fact, this is a historic day for Catholics. This morning in Rome, our new Pope celebrated his inaugural Mass. 

In his homily he said something beautiful about friendship that I thought would be a good way to begin our conversation this evening. Pope Francis said: 

«The vocation of being a ‘protector’ … means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.» 

That’s why we are here tonight. Because we are friends and we want to know each other better and work with each other more closely. I know there is a long history of cooperation between Jewish and Catholic communities in Los Angeles and I know that AJC has been at the center of this. As we go forward on our journey together, I look forward to deepening our friendship and deepening the spiritual ties that unite us in truth, respect and goodness. 

We have a great mission as believers — to help make this a city of love and truth and peace. And this evening I want to talk about one of the most pressing issues we face in our city and in our region. Immigration reform. I think it is the most urgent civil rights question of our time. 

First I want to say thank you to you, Rabbi Diamond, and to the whole AJC. You have been leaders on this issue along with L.A. Council of Religious Leaders. I am grateful on behalf of the millions of immigrants who make up our Catholic Church here in Los Angeles. 

This issue of immigration is crucial to us. It’s also important to me personally. I was born in Monterrey, Mexico and lived there until after I graduated college. So I am an immigrant and also a naturalized American citizen. I still have family on both sides of the border. 

I am also the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on migration, so I am active on this issue at a national level. Basically, the bishops have for years now supported a comprehensive reform of our immigration policies that secures our borders and gives undocumented immigrants the chance to earn permanent residency and eventual citizenship. 

And I feel like we are seeing movement on this issue. Finally. For the first time in years. 

I was just in Washington two weeks ago for a meeting at the White House with President Obama — along with other religious leaders. The Jewish faith was represented by Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. I think we all walked away from the meeting feeling like the President agreed with our concerns. So now is the time to get this done. 

The question for us is what’s our role in immigration reform, as religious people? I think it’s this. I think our role is to be the voice of conscience and vision. That’s what’s been missing in the debate so far. If immigration was only about finding technical solutions, about fixing a broken system, then I think the system would probably have been fixed already. 

The real problem is that immigration is a question about America — about our national identity and destiny, about the national «soul.» What is America? What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and where are we heading as a country? What will the «next America» look like? What should the next America look like? 

We can’t try to answer all those questions tonight. But we can start to think about them. 

It was a British writer, G. K. Chesterton, who said, «America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.» 

He was right. Every other nation in history has been established on some «material» foundation. On the basis of a common set of borders or territory. Or on the basis of race or ethnicity — the same kind of people all live there. 

But America was founded on something else. America was founded on a vision. 

And that vision is Jewish and Christian in origin. It is a vision that we find on the first page of the Bible and it continues through the Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets and it continues in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the writings of the first Christians. 

America’s «creed» is based on the biblical teaching that human life is sacred and has great dignity — because God made men and women in his own image. It gets expressed this way in the Declaration of Independence — that all men and women are created equal by God and endowed with God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

This Judeo-Christian creed has helped make America home to a flourishing diversity of cultures, religions and ways of life. As a result, we have always been a nation of nationalities. E pluribus unum. One people made from peoples of many nations, races, and creeds. 

One of the problems we have today is that we’ve lost our ability to talk about issues in religious and moral terms. We are becoming a more and more secular society. And that makes it hard to talk about the values and commitments we find in America’s founding documents. 

Think about the great movements for change and social justice in America — the anti-slavery movement, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the culture of life movement today. These would be unthinkable without our nation’s sacred Judeo-Christian heritage. 

There’s a reason for that. Because in our system of democracy, human rights don’t come from government, they come from God. The best expression of that is John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: «The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.» 

So if we are not allowed to talk about God anymore in our politics or civic life then it becomes very hard to talk about human rights and human dignity. 

And I think that’s one of the problems we are having in this immigration debate. We have lost sense of the «humanity» of the men and women and children who are living in this country illegally. 

That worries me as a pastor. I’m worrie
d we are losing something of our national soul. 

America is a great nation. At home and abroad. In times of war and in times of peace. Americans can be found wherever people are poor and suffering — lending a hand, saving lives, building communities, bringing people hope. 

Yet this great nation finds itself today reduced to addressing this major issue in our public life through: name calling and discrimination; criminal «profiling» based on race; random identity checks; violent raids of workplaces and homes; arbitrary detentions and deportations. 

In the last four years we have deported almost 1.5 million people, almost 400,000 last year alone. 

In the name of enforcing our laws, now we are breaking up families. One in four deportees are being removed from an intact family. 

Again, I am a pastor not a politician. And to talk as a pastor — these are not statistics, these are souls. Human beings. We’re talking about fathers and husbands who, with no warning, won’t be coming home for dinner tonight — and who may not see their families again for a decade at least. We are talking about a government policy that punishes children for the crimes of their parents. 

We are a better people than this. America has always been a nation of justice and law. But we are also a people of compassion and common sense. What we’re doing right now betrays our values and makes our country weaker and more vulnerable. 

We can find a better way. This is where you and I come in, my brothers and sisters. This is the part we have to play as people of faith. 

When I think about immigration reform, I always go back to the Bible. And the lines that stay with me are always the words of Moses during the Exodus. He said: «You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.» [Exodus 23:9]

That’s it! That’s what our society needs to hear right now. Our society needs the heart of a stranger. This is our task. To be that beating heart. The heart of a stranger. We need to help our brothers and sisters to remember the founding vision of America. The vision of the Bible. The vision of the Gospel. 

We need to communicate this vision to our neighbors. This vision of God and this vision of the human person who is made in the image of God. Our society needs us to be the people of conscience. The people who remember and believe — that in God’s eyes we’re all his beloved sons and daughters, and no one is a stranger to any of us. 

And we need to remind our neighbors that our country was founded on this same vision. That God gives people rights, not governments. And that nobody ever forfeits his humanity or his right to be treated with dignity. No matter where he comes from or how he got here. No matter what kind of papers he possesses or doesn’t possess. This is as fundamental to the Bill of Rights as it is and the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount. 

I realize that in our agitated political climate, this kind of talk sounds naïve. But this is no time for polite silence about our values. Too much is at stake to give in to the corrosive cynicism that masks itself as political «realism.» 

As men and women of faith, we need to be a voice of conscience. We need to be the heart of the stranger in our political discussions. 

Let me stop here so that we can begin our conversation. Maybe I can leave you where we started off from — with some words from the new Pope Francis. 

Our new Pope is an immigrant’s son. This is also something new for a Pope in modern times. His father was a railroad worker who came to Argentina from Italy seeking a better life. What a great story! The son of a humble immigrant grows up to become the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics in every continent and nation! Doesn’t that say it all about the promise of immigration? 

Let me leave you with some more of his words from this morning’s homily: 

“We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness! To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope!” 

Thank you again for your attention. I pray that you will all share a most blessed Passover with your families and friends! 

May God give his people strength! May God bless his people with peace! 

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