Robert Wild, S.J.
Around the nation the topic of immigration has been a subject of intense debate. On one side are those promoting closed borders and tightened security; on the other those who advocate welcoming immigrants and a greater willingness to grant legal status to the undocumented. Because this is not simply a legislative issue but an ethical decision intimately concerned with human dignity and freedom, the Catholic Church has also weighed in on the immigration debate. At stake as well for the Church is the fact that many of the newer immigrants are Roman Catholics. Consequently, it is not surprising that the questions surrounding safe and enforceable immigration policies have become a priority concern of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. This resonates with us in a special way at Marquette because serving the children of immigrant families was part of our earliest mission, truly the educational purpose that led Bishop Martin Henni to found a Catholic college in Milwaukee.
Except for Native Americans, each of us has an immigration story to tell. My own ancestors first came to the United States in the early 19th century. My father’s family came from the midlands of England and my mother’s from County Cork in southern Ireland. Like most immigrants, their financial resources were meager. My mother’s people, who were Protestants in those days, came into upper New York state — “creeping across the St. Lawrence River from Canada” is how I often tell it — while the first Wilds, Episcopalians who turned Baptist in this country, labored as textile mill workers in the lower Hudson River valley. As is true for every generation of immigrants, my ancestors encountered resistance and prejudice. My mother’s family changed their surname from one that was obviously Irish, Cullinane, to a name of their own invention, Colnon. Probably this early example of self-initiated identity change was undertaken to make them seem more American and less Irish. They viewed it as part of their assimilation into a new culture — into a New World.
Really, my family’s history is not much different from that of any other American family. Our ancestors made tremendous sacrifices to live in this great country. And generation after generation this continues to be the American story — one of bold, independent-minded and ambitious immigrants who dare to risk all by leaving their own country to share in building the most powerful and productive nation in the world. Each new generation struggles, but most slowly experience success. Those without such a desire for a better future and willing to take risks to obtain it stayed home.
We hear people say that today’s newcomers threaten our jobs, our culture, even our way of life. However, that’s not a new sentiment; it’s as old as the concept of immigration itself. We must not forget the fact that the very same fears were expressed about our own ancestors. But how much easier it is for us to say that our ancestors deserved to be treated with dignity and not derided as some sort of subhuman species than to grant the same consideration to our nation’s most recent newcomers.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has petitioned that the undocumented immigrant population be given the opportunity to obtain permanent legal status through an “earned” legalization program. This type of program would certainly aid our nation in protecting its borders and national security — issues certainly of great importance for us all — while also honoring the humanity of those who seek to enter a country that holds so much promise for them and their families.
To be fearful about immigration is in a sense to deny our own history. To show contempt and hostility toward those who seek to improve their lives is to forget our own ancestors and their quest for freedom and a better life. Yes, we must certainly address our nation’s security, but we do our country a disservice if in so doing we forget our own best aspirations as a nation. As the inscription on the Statue of Liberty puts it, “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free. ...” Or, more basically, that Jesus’ best example of one who truly lived out the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” was an outsider, a foreigner, the person known as “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37).