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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

A Few Thoughts on Immigration

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.

refugee-crisismap-of-the-world-1005416__180My 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.

  1. Persons have the right not to have to migrate. Economic, social, and political conditions in their homeland immigrantsboot-998966__180should provide opportunities for people to work and support their families in dignity and safety.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.”
  5. 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: and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

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?

19 Responses

  1. How timely Sr. Melannie! In light of the discussions at the UN on refugees, we as Catholic Christians should support our brothers and sisters who are fleeing terrible plights. I am reading a book I found on our church bookshelf called Jesus Was a Migrant.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Thank you, Sr. Melannie. I agree with Kathleen: “How timely.” Last night it was reported on “60 Minutes” that Jordan – about the size of Indiana – has taken in over a million Syrian refugees. It did this knowing full well the risks of terrorist infiltration and economic hardship. This Christian nation of ours needs to step up!

  3. On a recent trip to Canada I was amazed to see so many different nationalities represented . Even in the small province of Nova Scotia. Those I spoke with seemed very accepting of all that have sought refuge on their shores. I wish our hearts were bigger than our fears.

  4. Every American was an immigrant after America was “discovered.” It is a shame that we are not more welcoming and inclusive of all persons who are seeking relief from intolerable situations. I pray that America will not be looking for ways to exploit immigrants, but instead open our hearts, minds, homes and wallets to help them!

  5. Melannie, yes indeed we are all of immigrant descendants….my parents came over as teenages mothers father made the first trip in 1912 with his oldests son…then the World War I broke out and he could not get back to Sicily my grandmother as there with with 4 other children and they could not communicate for years during the war..then the rest of the family cmae in July 1919 sailing on the Dante Alighieri..also on the crammed steerage section. and stayed on ellis Island for 25 days trying desperatlely to keep the autherities fromsending back my deaf aunt..all my grandfathers money was aid to a lawyer to help with this terrible situation…..yes let us be kind and generous t the immagrants

  6. Sister Melannie, once again a post that puts the issue right into our own laps, without judgment or disdain…just simply “heart” searching. Enjoyed the retreat day you shared with Sisters of St. Joseph NWPA associates this past year and VERY MUCH looking forward to seeing you at Holy Rosary Parish in ERIE PA tomorrow evening. Safe travels ~

  7. In the early 1980 me, my husband and two kids volunteered to be the “host” family in our church to look in on and help the Laotian family of 9 who came to our small town in Michigan as refugees. They had been in a camp in Thailand . What a life changing experience it was! The oldest boy spoke a little bit of English but none of the rest of the family did. Thankfully the school they attended was within walking distance and once they began school the kids all learned English quickly. As I recall our church helped them with housing, food, clothing and finding work. But after about 1 1/2 year they moved on to be with “family” in California. Unfortunately (before internet) we lost touch with them all. They remain in our hearts to this day. I believe that we should always open our arms to this oppressed people whose countries can no longer take care of them.

  8. Sr.Melanie:
    Loved both videos. I am all for helping people in foreign lands, but we do have to be very careful when letting people into this country from countries associated with terrorism. The US does more to help people than any country on earth. We are a melting pot of immigrants, but with the terrorism in the world today, we have to be smart. We will always take in people in need; we just have to be cautious and logical as we proceed forward. I pray for ISIS that God will change their hearts and minds. I pray for all people who are persecuted world-wide. May God continue to bless all people in the world. We need to change the way we think (think positive!) and change the energy of the world.

  9. Don’t be too hard on the U.S. as compared to Canada. We give out more than 1,000,000 green cards every year.

  10. Living in big urban areas most of my life, I have seen and experienced first hand what becomes of neighborhoods when many immigrants move in. The mindset is not the same as our ancestors of yore. The situation becomes complicated and difficult. It seems immigration laws most definitely need improvement.

  11. America is a fearful country. Not God fearing as it should be but fearing loss of it’s own resources. Once we were a very open and sharing country. Now we are a powerful and greedy country.

  12. Thank you for this post, Sr. Melannie. It is very a propos. I am Canadian and yes, we are to take in 5,000 Syrian immigrants this year. Yet when I read of the awful conditions in which displaced families are living and think of all the wide open spaces we have, I can’t help but wonder if we couldn’t do more. What would Jesus do? All of the people who are living in refugee camps … or who are on their way to such … are “our neighbour.” Our parish was expecting to take in a family this year; government regulations have provoked a delay until 2017. Meanwhile, will they be hungry, thirsty and cold as the temperature drops? Will they be protected from the elements? I wish that every peaceable corner of the world could throw open its doors and welcome the oppressed.

  13. Thank you Sister Melannie. I love the song, and yes, my parish has a newly-created Immigration Team. Though I’m not directly involved, I’m glad that some are, and they are bringing awareness to the rest of us.

  14. Thanks again, Sr. Melannie. I really like this song, have been familiar with it for a while.
    My parish has a newly-created immigration team. While I’m not directly involved, I am glad that there are people working on this, and bringing awareness to the rest of us.

    I wonder what will happen here in the U.S. and if this topic will be discussed during the presidential debate tonight.

  15. I was also raised in a Bohemian family. My grandmother never spoke English and my parents spoke English only when in public. At home we spoke Bohemian, but when I entered first grade my parents insisted we speak only English, because we are Americans and my ancestors came here to become Americans. Yes, we should welcome immigrants but they should also become Americans and learn our language. They come here for a reason, because we are America. Do not try to change it to Mexico, or Somalia. Yes, my family has continued some of the old traditions, but we respect and honor flag and country.

  16. Sister Melanie,
    I agree with Barbara D, we must be careful of countries associated with terrorism. It just such a sad state that we are in such a mess right now, I pray every day for ISIS, that God can change their minds and hearts.
    Thanks Sister. For these lovely posts.

  17. Sr Melannie
    I appreciate your views and in this case i agree with some but not all; too involved to list an opposing(albeit also compassionate)) opinion on some of your views.Obviously,however, there are prices to pay (too numerous to mention here),for both the resident and the “migrant”to an immediate “come one come all” policy. I believe,for a policy to work for ALL INVOLVED,there needs to be a pause for thoughtful discussion rather than to fall prey to what many believe to be the ONLY Christlike position ie to immediately allow any and all to “just come”; this is not necessarily”Christlike but is certainly unwise and potentially reckless. I know on a website such as this there may be many to shout “unchristian”but I recall Jesus mentioning the wisdom of FIRST calculating the cost to build a tower before starting it so it could be (properly) completed. It would have been,I believe, helpful to see the words “orderly”and “legal”at least once in the commentary ( worked well for grandparents at Ellis Island).

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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