Diocesan News

Bishop: Immigrants Don’t Leave Dignity at Border

Immigration reform was the topic of the sixth annual Catholic Lecture Series held March 27 on the campus of St. John’s University, Jamaica, an institution that has served generations of immigrants and their children. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio gave a presentation entitled “Catholic Teaching on the Issue of Immigration.”

Bishop DiMarzio is a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People and chairs the board of the Center of Migration Studies of New York, Inc. He is also the former chair of the Migration Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

He spoke about how Catholic social teaching must be incorporated into handling the issue of immigration in that every person – both documented and undocumented citizens – has an inherent human dignity that must be respected. He said he believes that the involvement of the Church in matters of immigration is a Gospel mandate.

“We must as a Church involve ourselves in immigration policy because it does come from our understanding of social ethics,” he said. “Migration is not really a problem to be solved but rather something we must naturally grow into understanding ourselves better. The idea of welcome is what’s important.”

Bishop DiMarzio delivers a talk on immigration at the St. Thomas More Chapel on the campus St. John’s University during the college's Catholic Lecture series. (Photo by Jim Mancari)
Bishop DiMarzio delivers a talk on immigration at the St. Thomas More Chapel on the campus St. John’s University during the college’s Catholic Lecture series. (Photo by Jim Mancari)

Bishop DiMarzio discussed five principles that speak to the Church’s teaching on migration, as outlined by the joint statement between the USCCB and the bishops of Mexico entitled “Migration in a Globalized Context.”

First, he said, persons have the right to find opportunities in their own homeland, and secondly, persons have a right to migrate to support themselves and their families. The innate dignity of every individual, he said, is the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, and poverty, persecution and a desire for a better life are sufficient reasons to justify migration.

“Our Catholic social teaching gives us the mandate to globalize solidarity to explore our thirst for justice and back it up with the true Christian charity,” he said.

The third principle has provided the basis for the tensions surrounding the issue of immigration in that sovereign nations have a right to control their borders in order to secure their country and their own citizens from harm. Bishop DiMarzio said that the balance between those who enter and what status they receive must be determined by the common good.

“I thought it was remarkable that he (Bishop DiMarzio) spoke about the idea of the common good between us here as a nation and those who are coming as individuals and how we have to find a balance between what is good for us and what is good for them at the same time,” said Joseph Reis, a senior at St. John’s.

Bishop DiMarzio continued saying that the fourth principle is that refugees and asylum seekers – known as forced migrants – should be afforded protection, since they are the most vulnerable members of the world’s stage. Temporary protective status offers the victims of natural disasters a safe haven in the U.S., but Bishop DiMarzio said the response to natural disasters – such as Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013 in the Philippines – has been “hardly adequate.”

Finally, Bishop DiMarzio explained the fifth principle: The human rights and human dignity of the undocumented should always be respected.

“The term ‘undocumented’ has caused many to say that the Church is camouflaging an illegal situation,” he said. “But these are persons who do not leave their humanity behind in their country of origin when they cross our borders. For the most part, they are undocumented workers in a society’s labor market that craves labor but does not afford them legal status.”

Adam Varano, a sophomore at St. John’s, has explored the issue of the human dignity of migrants though his Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching class. He was thus intrigued to hear Bishop DiMarzio’s thoughts on the subject.

“We (the class) emphasize how important it is to think of all these numbers and statistics as human people,” Varano said. “In this country, it’s so easy to think of anything that’s happening in our world as just numbers. When we really put a face to it and try to think about it as our own family members, it becomes so much more important to really respect them.”

Bishop DiMarzio said that these migrants are coming to this country to work. Most send benefits home to their families and contribute to this nation’s economy by renting apartments, buying homes and integrating into the labor market. In fact, he said, many undocumented workers cannot even be detected.

“They’ve accomplished integration by labor, and that’s the first mark of integration into a society,” he said. “Why are they all coming here? There’s a labor market here. We (New York City) were not affected that badly by the recession. That’s why there’s a need for labor. It’s like nature itself: Where there’s a vacuum, it’s filled. Nature fills the vacuum. That’s what’s happening in our own city.”

To further emphasize his point that every person has certain inalienable and fundamental rights, Bishop DiMarzio quoted Blessed Pope John Paul II’s teaching that migrants are always persons with unique human dignity.

“The migrant is never an object of migration, but rather he is the subject,” the bishop said. “It is free will that he exercises in the act of migration. He’s the protagonist; he’s not the result of migration.”

“[Human dignity] is the underlying meaning of what Catholic social teaching is all about,” said Gina Darnaud, a St. John’s sophomore. “How could you turn away from the idea that we were all born with this inherent dignity and working towards that? We may never get where we want to be, but working towards that is what really matters.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Bishop DiMarzio affirmed the need to look at this issue chiefly from the perspective of the labor market. He said the goal should be to let the labor market drive the regulation of the border and for the U.S. to allow enough people to enter the country to fill the needs of the labor market.

He acknowledged that the regulation of the border must be balanced by the common good. “We cannot have 11 or 12 million undocumented people in our country and say we have national security,” he said. “We don’t know who they are, and there could be terrorists among them. The best thing to do is make sure the labor market is secure. That’s going to make the difference. The labor market is where the security of immigration lies.”

In offering realistic recommendations for reform, Bishop DiMarzio brought copies of his pamphlet, entitled “Brothers and Sisters in Christ: A Catholic Teaching on the Issue of Immigration,” that answers 31 challenging questions about immigration. He encouraged the audience to contact their legislators to find out more information about the issue and how they can help in spreading advocacy.

Moving forward, Bishop DiMarzio said that international cooperation is the only potential solution to worldwide control of migration today. With the influx of immigrants coming to Brooklyn and Queens to work in Manhattan, this issue will remain on the local Church and government agenda.

“Immigration reform will happen, either now or in the not too distant future,” the bishop said. “Only in a globalized world can migration be a binding force of good instead of a destructive phenomenon that gives cause to endless discussions.”