Bishop's Interview: Advocating for a more just immigration system

Editor: Bishop, Immigration Reform was your topic of choice for this month’s interview. Why is it important to discuss this now?

Bishop Vásquez: Immigration Reform has been a ‘hot topic’ in our country for years and the topic is not going to go away until a real solution and proper legislation is passed. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been urging our government and Congress to act on reforming the immigration laws in our country because they are ineffective. Both the current administration and Congress have admitted that the current immigration laws no longer work. 
Because our current immigration laws are no longer effective, they are hurting individuals. The first ones to get hurt are families, who are being separated under the current laws. When someone comes to the U.S. from another country and has children here, those children have rights as American citizens, but their parents, if undocumented, may be deported. Thus children are being separated from their parents or are forced to go back to a country that they do not know. Maybe they have lived here 10 or 15 years. Maybe they don’t even speak the language or know the culture of their own particular country because they have been born here, raised here and have integrated into this society. 
Another issue is these types of laws become detrimental to the type of work that immigrants do in the U.S. That is to say, they come here, they do work which sometimes nobody else wants to do, but because they have no protection under the law, they can be easily denounced and reported, they can be threatened, wages can be withheld from them, and they can be mistreated and abused. All of this can happen and often does happen because undocumented immigrants have little or no rights to protect themselves. Immigrants often live in shadows. They stay in the background because they don’t want to be known. They want to be hidden because they are so afraid of being deported and sent back to their countries. 
Immigrants often struggle with many hardships just to come to the U.S. so that they can have a better life. Many of them die because of dangerous conditions. In Texas and in the southern U.S., each year many people from Central America and South America travel across the desert and suffer tremendously to make new lives for themselves. Unfortunately, many lose their lives in the process of coming to the U.S. or to other countries. These are horrible and tragic situations. 
We bishops are saying that it is time for us to change our immigration system, to reform the laws, and to create a system that is more just. At the same time, we must take into consideration that our country must be able to protect its borders and protect her citizens. The majority of the people coming to the U.S. do not wish us any harm. They are not coming as terrorists. They are coming here for one basic reason –– to make better lives for themselves and their families and loved ones.

Editor: Why is the church involved in this political discussion?

Bishop Vásquez: The church for many, many years has been advocating for changes in our immigration laws and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has promoted the Justice for Immigrants Campaign for years. The church has a responsibility to shine the message of God on this issue and help to build bridges between all parties so that an immigration system can be created that is just for all and serves the common good, including the legitimate security concerns of our nation. 
Immigration reform experienced some tremendous setbacks after Sept. 11, 2001, which were very difficult for us to overcome. Since then the atmosphere in our own country has been very negative against the immigrant. Prior to Sept. 11, our country was ready to work to reform the law, but when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, everything stopped. So here we are years later, still suffering the consequence of that terrible event. 
However, it does seem that we now have a Congress that recognizes the need for reform. Hispanics are a growing population in our country and they are beginning to have a voice and many of them are expressing their right to vote. Congress and the current administration have become very conscious of their needs, and they realize that there is this population that has a potential to influence the outcome of elections. Therefore, more and more of our lawmakers are seeing immigration reform as necessary. 
Based on Scripture and Catholic social teachings, as well as our own experience as an immigrant church in the U.S., the Catholic Church is compelled to raise her voice on behalf of those who are marginalized and whose God-given rights are not respected. The church is involved because the church stands with the immigrant and speaks on behalf of those who have no voice. The immigrant population has very little voice, as I said before many of them live in the shadows. Therefore, we need to speak on their behalf. 

Editor: What can Catholics read or learn to become more informed about these positions?

Bishop Vásquez: I recommend Catholics go to the Justice for Immigrants website at www.justiceforimmigrants.org. There is history of how the church has spoken about immigration. There are also many myths that are debunked on the site. That is to say, there are some things like immigrants are a burden to the society and they are not contributing their fair share, both of which are completely untrue. Undocumented immigrants are working and paying taxes, yet they don’t see the benefits of that money at all. The Justice for Immigrants website includes a wealth of information about immigrants and about how we can advocate for immigration reform. I am very grateful that the church has stood with immigrants and continues to advocate for these people who only seek a better life for themselves and their families.
Also, in 2003 the U.S. bishops and the bishops of Mexico came together to write a Pastoral Letter on Migration called “Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope.” This document shows the solidarity of the Mexican bishops and the U.S. bishops in standing up for migrants. It is available at www.usccb.org. Also, at the USCCB website, the bishops’ document from 2000 entitled “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” is available in English and Spanish. This document addresses the welcoming of immigrants to our parishes and communities.

Editor: Immigration is not just an issue for the U.S. Pope Francis often talks about the need to welcome the stranger among us as well.

Bishop Vásquez: Yes, in fact, every year the pope speaks about the pastoral needs of migrants and refugees on World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which is celebrated during the first week of January and was instituted by Pope Pius X in 1914. In his 2014 message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis writes, “Fleeing from situations of extreme poverty or persecution in the hope of a better future, or simply to save their own lives, millions of persons choose to migrate. Despite their hopes and expectations, they often encounter mistrust, rejection and exclusion, to say nothing of tragedies and disasters which offend their human dignity.
The reality of migration, given its new dimensions in our age of globalization, needs to be approached and managed in a new, equitable and effective manner; more than anything, this calls for international cooperation and a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion. Cooperation at different levels is critical, including the broad adoption of policies and rules aimed at protecting and promoting the human person.”  
As we look around the world, it is amazing to see the shift in populations that the world has experienced for reasons of war, economics and persecution. These shifts in population are making all of us more aware about immigration and the need to be more receptive to the stranger. That is a very biblical response to the immigrant because for us Catholics and as Christians we believe that in our encounter with the stranger, we also meet and encounter Jesus Christ. 
Many people suffer from what we call xenophobia, or the fear of something or someone that is different. This includes the fear of others because they don’t speak our language or because they don’t understand our culture or because they eat a different type of food or because they have a different religion. This fear often causes us to close the door to strangers and keep them away as far as possible. However, the Christian and the Catholic view has always been to open the door to the stranger and to welcome them. We are called to overcome our fears and to welcome the stranger, just as Christ would.
As Pope Francis writes in his 2014 message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization … towards a attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”

Editor: So what would you like Catholics to do regarding immigration?

Bishop Vásquez: The first thing we must do is pray for reform in the law. Secondly, I would like to see Catholics and people of good faith write their Congressmen urging them to seize the opportunity to change the immigration laws. We need to pressure the current administration and members of Congress to pass legislation that will fix the currently broken immigration system. We need immigration laws that are just and at the same time, take into consideration the protection of our borders. 
I also encourage Catholics to learn as much as possible about this issue and to read about the immigration bills as they are before Congress. Learn what is good about each bill and if the bills are not good, speak out to your Congressmen about the need for change. As I said before, we must speak out on behalf of those who have no voice.
I also pray for all immigrants. As Pope Francis writes in his World Day of Migrants and Refugees message, Mary and Joseph knew what it meant to leave their own country and become migrants as they escaped the reign of Herod. “The maternal heart of Mary and the compassionate heart of Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family, never doubted that God would always be with them. Through their intercession, may that same firm certainty dwell in the heart of every migrant and refugee.”

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