I confess: I cannot speak completely objectively about immigration. That’s because three of my grandparents were immigrants from Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. All three immigrated as teenagers, leaving their parents and other family members behind. Forever. I can’t imagine what courage that took.
My Grandma Svoboda told about coming over in the crammed steerage section of the Kaiser Wilhelm. With only three days left on the ship, the captain announced there were icebergs in the area so they had to stop sailing. That huge ship sat in the North Atlantic for two days and two nights before the captain deemed it safe enough to move forward. That was in March 1905. Nine years before the sinking of the Titanic.
My grandparents entered the country through Ellis Island. They settled in the Bohemian neighborhoods in Cleveland’s east and west sides. My parents said, as children, they spoke Bohemian in their homes and churches. My Dad said, “We learned English on the streets.” But in first grade at St. Adalbert School, Sister Maron, a Sister of Notre Dame, taught my Dad and her other first graders to read and write in two languages: English and Czech. Amazing! It was largely the nuns in all those parish schools who helped to integrate those throngs of immigrants and their children into their new country.
Because immigration and refugees are such a global issue these days, I did a little reading on this subject and attended a few talks. Clearly, I’m no authority. But let me share just a few thoughts with you.
First, we must remember that the child Jesus was a refugee. When Herod unleashed his reign of terror in Judea, Mary and Joseph grabbed their child, fled their native country, and sought refuge in Egypt. How did they manage to survive there, I wonder? Were there other Jews already there who befriended them? Did some Egyptians reach out to help them? How did they cope with the language barrier?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs us to welcome the stranger: “For I was hungry and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” In scripture, the term “stranger” usually means “foreigner.” With these words, Jesus is reiterating the venerable Jewish tradition of offering hospitality to the stranger, the alien, the foreigner. We would say today, to the refugee and immigrant.
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of teaching on immigration. Here, in a nutshell, are five basic principles taken from the U.S. Bishops Pastoral letter of 2003 entitled Strangers No Longer.
- Persons have the right not to have to migrate. Economic, social, and political conditions in their homeland should provide opportunities for people to work and support their families in dignity and safety.
- When people cannot do this, they have a right to migrate. But this right is not absolute. There must be “just reasons.” In some places in our world today there are many just reasons for people to leave their countries: extreme poverty, prolonged wars, and persecution. Individuals fleeing such conditions must be given “special consideration.”
- At the same time, nations have a right to control their borders. But this right is not absolute either. Nations also have an obligation to the universal and common good and must seek to accommodate migration “to the greatest extent possible.” (Note: I marvel how Canada has pledged to accept 50,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, while the U.S. is accepting 10,000.)
- Refugees should be afforded protection. The U.S. “should employ a refugee and asylum system that protects asylum seekers, refugees, and other forced migrants and offers them a haven from persecution.”
- Persons who enter a nation without proper authorization or who over-stay their visas should be treated with respect and dignity and “not be detained in deplorable conditions for lengthy periods of time.” They should be afforded “due process of law” and “a qualified adjudicator.”
Some argue that immigrants will take our jobs. Yet studies show that undocumented and legal immigrants work in jobs Americans generally do not want. Who picks your strawberries? Who processes your chicken? Who cleans your hotel room? Chances are they are immigrants or migrants. Others say immigrants are criminals, yet studies consistently show that immigrant populations have a lesser incidence of crime than U.S. born populations.
I realize the immigration situation is not simple. I encourage more reading, discussion, and action on this critical issue. For more on this topic, here are two websites: www.justiceforimmigrants.org and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org.
Today I’m offering two videos. The first tells the story of resettling refugees in Toronto, Canada. It’s less than four minutes long, but it gives a face to immigration. The second video is our song.
Our song today is “My Own Little World” by Matthew West. It reminds us that Jesus calls us to expand our world to include more than “population me.”
What are your thoughts on this topic? Are any of you or your parishes involved in immigration issues?