I’m just off a trans-Atlantic crossing. You don’t realize how moving the experience of walking to the top of a ship for a pre-dawn arrival in New York City will be until you have the opportunity to do it. I found myself after a week on the ocean oddly comforted by the sight of buildings. As much as the sunsets and rises on the ocean drew me into a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the Earth, Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City” was playing in my head. Dry land has its advantages.
But it was neither the buildings nor Manhattan that is the star of the show when pulling into New York Harbor. It is, of course, the Statue of Liberty. The Germans behind me saw her first, saying: “There she is: Lady Liberty. Welcoming us.” For me, a native New Yorker, it was a familiar sight, and a symbol of what we ought to be as a nation and as citizens and good neighbors — not to mention a beacon to people a world away looking for a haven or a fresh start.
This occurred the day after Donald Trump announced his DACA news: the act that gave safe haven to illegal immigrants brought to the country as children is toast unless Congress wants to do something about it. A blanket of condemnation seemed to fill the airwaves. Even with a slow and expensive Internet connection on the ship, it was impossible to tune out. And it shouldn’t be tuned out.
I had a flashback that morning to a conference call from a few years back. American Catholic bishops were urging Congress to move on immigration reform, and a question was raised with some bluster about the need for a high fence. You could hear over the phone lines that the question rattled every pastoral instinct in Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was, at the time, president of the bishops’ conference.
We live in a time of miscommunications, misapprehensions and misunderstandings. We also live in a time when more of us have an opinion about everything, often in the most absolute terms. Some of the alarms raised by pastors and Catholic bishops have been dismissed as coming from a constituency with a financial interest in keeping immigrants around. But this is about family, not numbers.
I’ve known Archbishop Jose Gomez from Los Angeles for many years. And I don’t think he’d mind me sharing that he often shares with me his distress about politics, and about conservative Republicans. And it’s not only because he is concerned about the people entrusted to his care. He also cares about the souls of the people in leadership, perhaps more than they do.
“For me, immigration is about people, not politics,” he tells me. “For me, behind every number is a human soul with his or her own story. A soul who is created by God and loved by God. A soul who has a dignity and a purpose in God’s creation. Every immigrant is a child of God — a somebody, not a something.”
Immigration is a complicated issue, but then what issue isn’t? Especially when it involves hopes and dreams and law and order — and an incompetent bureaucracy staffed by politicians who aren’t always willing to be bold and courageous. But again, this isn’t unique to this issue. Nor is the fact that people and positions can be too easily caricatured. As Dolan put it back on that phone call, the Church’s bona fides on this issue stem from its presence on the front lines providing care and assistance, legal and otherwise, to immigrants. As Archbishop Gomez put it earlier this year: “Practically speaking, there is no single institution in American life that has more day-to-day experience with immigrants than the Catholic Church — through our charities, ministries, schools and parishes.”
In that same speech, he said: “America has always been a nation of immigrants with a missionary soul. Our founders dreamed of a nation where men and women from every race, religion and national background could live in equality — as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.”
We need to make and enforce laws about borders and immigration justly. We need to see again the possibilities that so many have seen at the sight of the Statue of Liberty and other symbols of the promise of America. It’s something to share, not hoard or let recede in all the noise and anger.