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Immigration Reform: Keeping Families Clearly in Mind

Soon after Jesus was born, he and his family became like migrants, fleeing their homeland to protect his life.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta recalled the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt in a Dec. 3 speech encouraging strong support during the period ahead for comprehensive U.S. immigration reform. There is hope, he said, that the next session of the U.S. Congress “will take up the issue of immigration reform.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ determination to “fight to ensure that family reunification remains the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration policy” was underscored in the speech. The archbishop expressed concern at the “record number of deportations and family separations over the past several years.”

Archbishop Gregory addressed some 200 national immigration leaders participating in a Dec. 3-5 Catholic conference in Atlanta. The conference was organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC.

“We cannot help but see the migratory aspects of the incarnation when Jesus enters the world amid a drama involving documentation (Lk 2:1-5), then becomes a political refugee fleeing his homeland because of threats to his life (Mt 2:13-17) and returns to live in a small town disdained as unsuitable for the Messiah (Jn 7: 41-43, 52),” the archbishop commented.

In fact, he said, Scripture “is filled with migrating people who journey toward God.” Among those mentioned were Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph and Moses.

“Those biblical migrants were not unlike today’s immigrants,” Archbishop Gregory told his audience. “In part, they saw their journeys through the eyes of faith, but they were compelled to journey to support their families in times of famine.”

Negative Labels

After citing a belief in biblical times mentioned in John’s Gospel that “no prophet arises from Galilee,” Nazareth’s location, Archbishop Gregory cautioned that “negative labels damage the image of the people whom they brand, and they poison public debate when they unfairly characterize people.”

The church supports “adherence to civil laws” and recognizes “the right of sovereign nations to the integrity of their borders in order to foster the common good,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Yet, he added, while migrants who cross borders “without inspection” or who lack “proper documentation” may indeed break civil law, “they do not forfeit their rights as an image of God, and they do not suddenly merit negative or contemptuous labels, such as ‘illegals’ or worse.”

The deaths of so many migrants while “crossing deserts and risking their lives” in order “to meet basic human needs” is an indication “that there are human needs driving migration to the United States and we are obligated to address those needs through public policies here and in other countries,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Family-Based System

The archbishop repeated again and again in his speech his concern for immigrant families.

“Families, many with U.S. citizen members, continue to be divided under our current enforcement policies, while those who apply for family reunification in the regular process must wait years to join their loved ones,” he explained.

The U.S. bishops, the archbishop said, “will seek to improve the family-based immigration system so that families – mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents – can remain together and be reunited more expeditiously.”

The bishops “welcome the addition of employment-based visas” for migrants, “but not at the expense of the family-based system,” he continued. He said that just as in 2007, the bishops “will oppose a point system which places value on a person’s resume over a person’s family ties.”

The bishops also will resist proposals that “undocumented persons be given legal status, but not an opportunity to earn citizenship.” Archbishop Gregory said, “We will argue against the creation of a permanent underclass in this country, where certain parts of our population do not have the rights that others do.”

Most migrants, Archbishop Gregory stated, “migrate only out of necessity.” However, he noted that “persons have a human right to migrate to support themselves and their families.”

Advent and Human Dignity

With his speech, delivered in the season of Advent, Archbishop Gregory accented the human dignity of immigrants. “We continue our commitment to the human dignity and rights of all people, who are entitled to opportunities in their homelands as well as support when they need to migrate to sustain themselves and their families,” he said.

In preparing during Advent for Christmas, he commented, “the mystery of the incarnation reminds us of the real reason why we advocate for immigrant peoples.” He pointed out that much of the Second Vatican Council’s social teaching is based “on the dignity of every human being” as an image of God.

People “who lack documentation” or “live in the shadows of an irregular status” are “not strangers” but are “our brothers and sisters” in whom we see “the very image of Christ,” Archbishop Gregory told participants in the immigration conference.

“In the end,” he concluded, “by opening the door to the stranger, we are opening the door to Christ in our lives.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.