While state and federal legislators and administrators must wrestle with the difficult policy questions posed by immigration patterns, the Church is in a unique position to meet immigrants as people.
Unquestionably, laws affect real people. With the rise of more aggressive legislative devices to identify and expel undocumented immigrants, personal contact with immigrant has taken on an increasingly contentious tone. It is difficult to draw a distinction, at times, in the positions of some public figures as to whether their animus is merely pro-immigration reform or simply anti-immigrant.
America at present has an ostensibly inconsistent relationship with much of its immigrant population. Enforcement policies vary from state to state and the federal surveillance of illegal entry is notoriously inadequate and not for lack of diligence on the part of border officials with their feet on the ground.
Yet, for all the wrangling about the negative effects on American jobs, businesses and social structures, most of the illegal immigrant population are engaged in services that those born naturally on our shores would not likely be performing in their absence. It is estimated, for example, that from half to two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables in America are picked by the undocumented work force. Our way of life is supported and sustained, perhaps more than we are willing to own up to at times, by those to whom we refuse to accord the rights and duties of ownership, which is a foundational principle of the American Republic. We would wholeheartedly welcome those guest worker initiatives that would at once enable immigrants to seek legal status even as they help to sustain the American economy through businesses and consumers who depend on their services.
“The Catholic Church provides pastoral and social services to all persons, regardless of their immigration status,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said on Sept. 8. “Our mandate is to provide for the pastoral and social care of all of God’s children. Government should not infringe upon that duty, as America’s founding fathers made clear in the U.S. Constitution.”
The statement is part of a response by the U.S. Catholic Bishops toward legislation — in this case a bill proposed in the state of Alabama — that would, if enacted, seriously impede the Church’s ability to exercise its mission.
What is often neglected or overlooked in the heat of the political discussions about how to address our immigration crises is the humanity not only of those who come here, but also their families who are dependent on them and often have little voice. The main focus of the Church’s ministry to immigrants cannot change based on vagaries of public policy. That said, it should not be inferred that the Church has no interest in public policy towards immigrants which clearly involves decisions that should be made on sound moral and legal principles.
The mission of the Church is to provide service to everyone, regardless of status. It may be imminently arguable whether or not, as a matter of public policy, a state should, for example, offer tax-payer funded educational services to those who are not in this country legally. No such question can be raised, however, concerning the decision to provide religious education, medical care, family support or spiritual counsel to anyone who seeks it from the Church. In fact, Canon Law requires pastors to care for all those who are within his territory, whether domiciled in some way or transient, regardless of their legal or moral status.
Many of the people to whom Mother Theresa of Calcutta ministered were among the most despised and marginalized of society. They were not even Catholics, let alone Christians. Her model, of course, like ours, is always Christ, who came for the salvation of all, especially those in most need of God’s grace.