When President Joe Biden recently visited El Paso, Texas, a city that borders Mexico and is the destination of literally thousands of immigrants attempting to enter this country, he met Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso.
The bishop handed Biden a holy card. It was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A young Mexican girl had given the card to the bishop. She entered the United States, but her relatives still had not. She asked the bishop’s prayers to Jesus that they, too, might escape the terrible conditions back home.
When he met President Biden, according to reports, Bishop Seitz spoke bluntly. He and the good, generous people of the El Paso diocese are working, magnificently, to ease the situation. Pope Francis has been equally frank about caring for immigrants.
Why are Church leaders, from Texas all the way to the Vatican, taking this approach? Nothing new, the present performance of bishops and many Catholics reflects Catholic values, and American Catholic history.
People have been trying to escape hard times as long as this country has existed. Without pause in the story of this country, and from Jamestown to Plymouth, St. Augustine to San Diego, immigrants have come, impelled by troubles at home or by the wish to improve their lives. Their surnames fill American cities and towns and farmlands. Their contributions, and those of their descendants, to the strength of this country cannot be measured.
Uninterrupted throughout American history has been the Catholic Church’s welcome, not just in words, but in warm hearts, understanding minds and helping hands. Catholic hospitals were founded to provide medical care to immigrants. Catholic schools were established to teach children of immigrants. Now acclaimed Catholic universities, from Boston College to the University of Santa Clara, and churches by the dozens upon dozens were built.
Some Catholic Americans alive today recall the mid-1950s when Russia ruthlessly put down a democratic effort in Hungary. American Catholics overwhelmingly welcomed Hungarians, escaping the Russians. Several years later, American Catholics sacrificed to receive into this country refugees from the communist takeover of Cuba. The same greatness of heart occurred when many fled Vietnam.
Partly it has been because of the faith of the immigrants, like the little girl who gave the bishop her holy card that he handed President Biden. For millions of immigrants, past and present, their Catholic religion is their rock and their shield.
Church leaders, and Catholics, have felt, and feel, an obligation to help them, knowing that the Church is their hope, and their home, and that Catholics are their brothers and sisters.
The immigration issue lately has become a political football, and, forgetting their history, even American Catholics now favor harsh restrictions on the ability of refugees to enter this country. Not helping the problem is the chronic failure of a succession of Congresses, for a generation. Politicians, of both parties, talk and talk and talk and talk about passing laws to improve the situation, but nothing happens. Years come and go. Problems multiply.
Some foolish statements are made. One person recently predicted on television that arriving immigrants will “lower” American “standards.”
Immigrants in America inevitably try to merge into American culture, embrace American principles, and “achieve.” Some have been, and are, exceptionally successful. Opportunity is key.
Legendary Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Antonin Scalia were children of immigrants. So are sitting Justices Samuel Alito and Sonya Sotomayor, current prominent politicians, like U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Governor Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump himself. So was Walt Disney, of Disneyland and Disney World. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox empire, is an immigrant.
Catholic public opinion is divided on this controversial issue, but Catholics should remember what prompts the official Church position.
As Bishop Seitz said, the Church sees no Greek or Hebrew, as St. Paul wrote, but only beloved children of God.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.