Up Front and Personal

St. Cabrini’s Example Needed in Our Time

By Father Edward Mason

As I watched the recently released movie on the life of St. Frances Cabrini, I could not help but think of the need for her courageous work and inspiring example to once again challenge the hearts and minds of American society.

Thousands of immigrants have flooded our country since the middle of 2022, coming for the same reasons millions of others have done before them. Our parents and ancestors too came here in search of a better life. Some fleeing political persecution, some fleeing dire economic hardship, others escaping the violence of ruthless gangs, they risked everything to live a life with dignity.

Having lived and worked on the front lines of our current surge of new arrivals here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, I know firsthand how challenging this has been socially, politically, and economically for many of us. I also know I have met and gotten to know many wonderful faith-filled people who only want to work hard to provide a better and safer life for their families.

Throughout much of our history, our country has been a beacon of hope for people fleeing other countries. And throughout our history these people have contributed to the building up of our society. The most recent groups of people coming here today are no different from the earlier ones. In the early days before the number of new arrivals began increasing dramatically, I would ask some, “How would you like to spend your first day here in New York?”

The two most frequent responses were, “I want to find a job and I want to visit the Statue of Liberty.” These are the same responses, hopes, and dreams of two centuries of millions who have come here before them.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, a type of immigrant fatigue has crept into many people’s attitudes leading to anti-immigrant sentiments, rhetoric, and most unfortunately into our political and social discourse.

One state’s legislature has made it illegal to distribute bottled water and food to migrants crossing desert terrain. Another state’s attorney general is threatening to prosecute a decades-old Catholic service institution for engaging in criminal activity for offering shelter, food, clothing, and legal assistance to immigrants entering our country.

Yes, regrettably, a number of recent crimes have been committed by members of the recently arriving immigrant community. Those committing these heinous acts should be apprehended and prosecuted like anyone else, for the safety of all in our society. But before we vilify an entire group of people for the actions of some, I offer some information for consideration. In California, a state that has historically received large numbers of immigrants, the Public Policy Institute of California, in collaboration with the FBI Office of Statistics reports that foreign-born people commit crimes at a rate of 297 per 100,000 total crimes committed, while the U.S.-born population commit crimes at a rate of 813 per 100,000. In other numbers, foreign-born people have a crime rate 64% lower than everyone else. FBI statistics find these ratios to be consistent throughout the nation.

Historically there is evidence of other immigrant groups dallying in criminal behavior. In the 1850s, an astounding 55% of those arrested in New York City were foreign born. Segments of people from other groups from both Europe and Asia have added to the culture of organized crime in America, resulting in these populations facing bias and prejudice, making their acculturation into American society all the more challenging.

Thus we live the great American paradox. We are a nation of immigrants, a nation built by the sweat of the brow of the foreign born. We are a nation whose development and culture have been blessed by newcomers to our shores and communities.

The next time you enjoy a hamburger or frankfurter, bite into a slice of pizza, or order Chinese takeout when you’re too tired to cook, offer a word of thanks to previous generations of immigrants. When you are about to wash down that food with a glass of wine or mug of beer, offer a word of toast.

We are on the one hand proud of our nation’s immigrant heritage, yet are willing to accept disparaging words and actions against them. The words of Emma Lazarus that are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” — have also been emblazoned into the psyche and identity of our nation.

And for more than two centuries the United States has indeed welcomed people by the millions from all over the world, offering opportunities to build a better life, and in so doing, these “huddled masses” have also built a better America.

Let this be our identity and our guidepost as Americans. Let the inner voice of these words overpower our thoughts of bias and prejudice. Let us be true to ourselves and our American heritage.

Thank you St. Frances Xavier Cabrini for your example and challenge. It is most fitting that you are the first American saint.