Immigrants Are People, Not Problems

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The Providence Visitor

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Mt 25:35)

In a time when both the community and the Church are trying to respond to a new wave of immigrants, these words of Jesus should inspire a serious examination of conscience for us all. It's an important exercise because Jesus reminds us that the way we welcome "strangers" will serve as one of the criteria for our final judgment. It's also important to ensure that our nation remains true to its better instincts and the Church to the inclusive spirit of Christ.

So, a question: Do you see immigrants as blessings or burdens, people to be welcomed or problems to be solved?

A few years ago, the American Bishops issued a statement on immigration entitled Welcoming the Stranger Among Us. In light of the sometimes fierce debate taking place today, it might be helpful to revisit the Bishops' document. It makes several important points.

For example, the document reminds us that most of us "Americans" have immigrant pasts, and that our Catholic ancestors also faced hardships and persecution. For that reason we should be especially sensitive to any form of discrimination against newcomers today. "Perhaps the greatest obstacle to welcoming the stranger is that many Americans have forgotten their immigrant past. 'Nativism' assumes that there is just one image of a 'real American' and that immigrants either cannot live up to it or willfully refuse to do so."

The statement addresses the thorny question of "undocumented immigrants." First, it explains that the Church does not condone undocumented migration, and it emphasizes that "nations have the right to control their borders." Most people would agree, I think, that clear and consistent immigration policies, along with careful control of our national borders, are very reasonable goals.

But the Bishops go on to affirm that "the Church supports the human rights of all people and offers them pastoral care, education and social services, no matter the circumstances of entry into this country."

In a time when our Nation is increasingly tempted to isolate itself and seal its borders, and the State, for fiscal purposes, threatens to eliminate critical social services for the undocumented and their children, it's good to recall that immigrants, regardless of the paper they carry or don't, are children of God and brothers and sisters to us. Though our resources are limited, we have a moral mandate to properly order our priorities and make a communal commitment to assist newcomers and respond to their social, educational, and health-care needs.

The public debate over immigration in our society and its consequences is certainly legitimate. Sometimes, however, the rhetoric heard on radio talk shows and found in letters to the editor takes an ugly, mean-spirited, even ominous tone. The Bishops deal with that problem, too, and strongly reject "the anti-immigrant stance that has become popular in different parts of our country, and the nativism, ethnocentricity, and racism that continue to reassert themselves."

Immigrants have spiritual needs too and the Church also has to examine its own conscience in this area. The Bishops teach: "The call to communion goes out to all members of the Church - bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders, and parishioners - to prepare themselves to receive newcomers with a genuine spirit of welcome. Simple, grace-filled kindness and concern on the part of all parishioners to newcomers are the first steps." The document adds, "Both on parish and diocesan levels, the presence of brothers and sisters from different cultures should be celebrated as a gift to the Church."

I warmly commend the parishes, schools and institutions of the Diocese of Providence, along with members of diocesan staff, who for a long time now have been fully committed to welcoming immigrants, assisting them, responding to their needs, and integrating them into the life of the Church. This noble ministry will continue to be a priority for our local Church.

In that spirit, I suggest several things that all the members of the Catholic community can do on behalf of our immigrants.

First we can examine our own attitudes about the immigrants in our nation and community. Are our thoughts, words and deeds worthy of the spirit of Christ or are they sometimes much less than that - negative, harsh, even sinful?

Secondly, we can take practical steps to ensure that newcomers are kindly received and warmly welcomed into our neighborhoods, parishes, schools and institutions. And while we respond to their needs we should also gratefully receive the gifts they bring to the table. Without a doubt, in due time, the new immigrants, like those of past generations, will strengthen our union, contribute to our community and enrich our culture.

Thirdly, we can support the reform of legislation so that it assists in a comprehensive and generous manner the immigrants who come to our country; and support federal and state budgets that provide sufficient funding to meet their basic human needs.

Finally, we can pray everyday for those who are newcomers to our country and our Church; for their safety, health and prosperity; and that our new neighbors will find full communion with us, "the communion willed by God, begun in time and destined for completion in the fullness of the Kingdom." (Ecclesia in America, #33)

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." What do those words mean for you? Think about it.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)