The Catholic Church in America has always been an immigrant church. No wonder that Pope Benedict XVI has given special attention in his first visit to the United States to the issue of immigrants.
Immigrants are no less the heart of the Church today than they were in the 19th century when German Catholics fleeing Bismarck’s Kulturkampf filled the pews alongside Irish, Czech and Slovakian Catholics escaping hunger and poverty in their homelands. In the early 20th century, the influx of Italians, Poles and others created new parishes and were the impetus for a mass Catholic school movement to educate these newcomers, not only in their faith, but in what it meant to be an American.
So, too, today’s immigrant Catholics — mostly Hispanic, but also African and Asian — are fueling the growth of the Catholic Church in America. Just look around the crowds who have gathered to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict or the thousands gathered to participate in the celebration of the Mass. No one can say that Sunday morning services are the most segregated hour in American Catholic life. The faces of the faithful reflect the true catholic — that is, universal — nature of the Church.
But Pope Benedict’s aim in invoking immigrants in both his public and private pronouncements was more than a reflection on the demography of his American flock. It was a plea to all Americans "to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their new home." And in private discussions with President Bush, the pope is reported to have brought up his concerns about local ordinances aimed at driving out illegal immigrants and the anti-immigrant hysteria that has accompanied these initiatives.
The pope is not suggesting that the United States does not have a right to set its own immigration policies — but he is calling for those policies to be implemented in a way that respects the dignity of all human beings. And what is happening in many communities across America today clearly violates this Christian principle.
In Prince William Country, Virginia, for example, policies enacted by the board of supervisors to direct police to question anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and jail them if they cannot prove, on the spot, that they are legal residents have led to widespread fear among Hispanics and others.
In recent testimony to the Virginia State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which I chair, a Prince William attorney, Lisa Johnson-Firth, described the experiences of her law partner, who is from Eritrea: "She’s been pulled over in the last two months three times by Prince William County policy officers and Manassas police officers for apparently no lawfully-stated reasons that either of us as lawyers could ascertain."
Johnson-Firth went on to detail other incidents involving Hispanics. In one, a Latino male — a lawful, permanent U.S. resident — was harassed by police for 30 minutes at a local convenience store; another legal resident, who was a passenger in a car, was ordered out of the vehicle, searched, and handcuffed and held for over two hours until his immigration status could be verified. Johnson-Firth testified she knew of numerous other incidents, some involving U.S. citizens, who described being routinely stopped for questioning by police when going about their normal business, simply on the basis of appearance or accent.
Nothing, including the effort to control illegal immigration, justifies this kind of harassment and intimidation. And the pope is merely reminding all Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic, that we should heed "the better angels of our nature," as our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, once invoked.
Whether we are citizen or non-citizen, American or foreign-born, legal or illegal immigrant, we are all God’s children. And it is our moral duty to treat each other as such.