Imagine you are a victim of a crime of violence or theft, but are afraid to report the crime to the police for fear you will be deported.
Imagine your apartment is infested with bugs and your landlord tells you not to report this to the Department of Health or he will report you to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Imagine you have worked very hard for the past few weeks, including overtime, and have not been paid. Your employer tells you not to report this to the Department of Labor or you will lose your job.
Imagine you petition your relative to come to this country legally and are told you have to wait many years for his visa to be approved.
These are all issues the immigrant and undocumented community face. Not in far away places like Texas or Arizona but right here in Southern New Jersey. I have witnessed issues similar to these as a priest at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton in Cumberland County. I also witnessed and represented people with similar issues as a lawyer who practiced immigration, family and housing law here in South Jersey. The injustices witnessed are just a few of the reasons the Catholic bishops of the United States and many faith groups advocate for broad based immigration reform.
Today there are an estimated 11-12 million undocumented persons in the United States. In recent years, precisely because the immigration laws of our nation have become more and more restrictive, the situation of undocumented people has become very precarious. Why do immigrants come to America today? No doubt, to seek the same hopes and dreams that drove immigrants to our shores in years past: safety from oppression, economic opportunity, freedom of religion and a brighter future for their children.
I am the grandson of Irish immigrants. I remember sitting in my grandmom’s kitchen and listening to her stories about her hard life in Northern Ireland. She lived and worked on the family farm and had very little schooling. She explained how she bid farewell to her family and left on a boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with cousins and family friends in Philadelphia.
We would be in tears as we listened, drinking tea, and I’m sure some of the adults a bit of Irish whiskey as well. Her story was a story of hope. Only God knew that my grandmom would marry a good man and raise a fine family. Only God knew that my grandmom’s children and grandchildren would be contributing members of the community: doctors, teachers, police officers, lawyers and a priest.
The dream of my grandmom, Mary Young, from Derry Ireland is not much different than the dreams I hear about today of Maria from Oaxaca, Mexico or Ali from Casablanca, Morocco. This is the dream that the Catholic bishops and many Christian and Jewish and Muslim faiths seek to preserve. It is the American dream.
The Catholic Church is an immigrant church. Scores of Italian, Irish, Polish and German immigrants built our churches and schools. The church in the United States consists of more than 58 ethnic groups from throughout the world. The Catholic Church has a long history of involvement in the immigration issue, both in the advocacy arena and in welcoming and assimilating waves of immigrants and refugees who have helped build our nation throughout her history.
Based on Scriptural and Catholic social teachings, as well as her own experience as an immigrant church in the United States, the Catholic Church is compelled to raise her voice on behalf of those who are marginalized and whose God-given rights are not respected. As a priest and a lawyer, I see that current immigration laws and policies have led to the undermining of immigrants’ human dignity and have kept families apart. The existing immigration system has resulted in a growing number of persons in this country in an unauthorized capacity, living in the shadows as they toil in jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. I meet them every day.
As a church community, we have the responsibility to shine the message of God on this issue and help to build bridges between all parties so that an immigration system can be created that is just for all and serves the common good, including the legitimate security concerns of our nation. For these reasons the church is advocating for immigration reform that will allow thousands of our undocumented neighbors to come out of the shadows and enjoy a path to permanent residency and citizenship. All of us can help provide dignity to our foreign born neighbors by writing to our local congressman and advocating for immigrant rights.
Father Vincent G. Guest, Esq. is parochial vicar at the Parish of the Holy Cross and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice.