Culture

America Welcomes Immigrants

Detail of “Welcome to the Land of Freedom” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887 (Library of Congress)
Let’s recapture a spirit of generosity and solicitude for neighbor and stranger alike.

I’m just off a trans-Atlantic crossing. You don’t realize how moving 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. After a week at sea, I found myself oddly comforted by the site of buildings. As much as the sunsets and sunrises on the ocean drew me into a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the earth, Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City” played in my mind as I approached the port. Dry land has its advantages.

But it was so much more than that. You can’t be on the Atlantic and not feel the history. And it is neither the buildings nor Manhattan island that is the star of the show when you’re pulling into New York Harbor. It is, of course, the Statue of the Liberty. The Germans behind me saw her first, as I was still looking for her in the sea of iPhones: “There she is: Lady Liberty, welcoming us.” You imagine so many before us, so many who were seeing her for the first time. For me, a native New Yorker, it was a familiar site and a symbol of what we ought to be as a nation and as citizens and good neighbors — and sometimes to people a world away looking for a haven or a fresh start. She is a symbol of welcome, and she is a symbol of the good stewardship to which we are called.

It happened also to be the day after Donald Trump announced his DREAM Act news: It’s 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 we shouldn’t tune out.

I had a flashback that morning to a press-conference call a few years ago. The U.S. Catholic bishops were urging Congress to move on immigration reform of some flavor, and one person raised a question, 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. He usually made headlines on religious liberty, as the Obama administration had forced many people of faith into court to protect religious liberty for all. But here Dolan was doing the same thing: informing the conscience of anyone within the sound of his voice. Reminding us of who we are: a welcoming people, who in many cases were welcomed, at some point in our families’ past, or we wouldn’t be here.

We live at a time of a lot of miscommunications and misapprehensions and misunderstandings. We also live at a time when more of us are willing and able to have an opinion about everything and often in the most absolute terms. Some of the alarms raised by pastors and Catholic bishops in a particular way have been dismissed as coming from a constituency with a financial interest in keeping immigrants around — immigrants fill the pews. But this is about family, not numbers.

I’ve known Los Angeles’s Archbishop José Gomez for a number of years, and I don’t think he’d mind my sharing that he often expresses distress about politics to me, and about conservative Republicans in a particular way. It’s not because he is concerned about the people entrusted to his care. He cares more about the souls of the people in leadership perhaps more than they themselves do.

The Church’s credential on this issue is that she’s on the front lines providing care and assistance, legal and otherwise.

“For me, immigration is about people not politics,” Gomez says. “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 and politicians who aren’t always willing to be bold and courageous. But again, that isn’t unique to this issue. Nor is the fact that people and positions can be too easily caricatured. As Dolan put it during that conference call, the Church’s credential on this issue is that she’s on the front lines providing care and assistance, legal and otherwise. 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 just laws about borders and immigration. And we also need to see people and want to build bridges not only fences. We need to see again the possibilities 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.

READ MORE:

Steve Bannon, the Catholic Church, and Immigration

A Church Conquers Harvey

Trump, Paris, and the Pope

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. 

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