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The United States has a distinctive history of immigration. The U.S. is, in the words of Walt Whitman, a “teeming nation of nations,” a place defined by migration. George Washington expressed his hope for America in a letter to Joshua Holmes in 1783:
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.
Temporary shelter for asylum seekers outside La Posada Providencia, San Benito, Texas.
Washington recognized that the freedom of his nascent country from England rested on welcoming immigrants who would contribute to the common weal, even if they were not welcomed in the lands from which they came.
Still, immigrants to the United States have perpetually been under threat, from the Know-Nothing Party, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Internment of Japanese Americans made possible by the Korematsu v. United States supreme court decision, recently overturned. Somehow, a nation built on immigration has always feared immigrants.
The history of Catholic Extension’s work on the peripheries of U.S. society shows something of the perennial challenge that immigrants have faced in this country. Our founder, Fr. Francis Clement Kelley, wrote an editorial in 1906 which, with slight modification, applies to our situation today. “The Catholic Church Extension Society could devote all its energies to this work alone and find more than enough to do.” He pointed specifically to the large number of Italians that worked on railways in New England and in the mid-Atlantic states, also calling to mind the Irish who had undertaken that work half a century earlier. He exhorts his fellow Catholics to recall how immigrants will refresh the U.S. Church: “If we are faithless to our trust and let them go by default it simply means that the Church misses a great opportunity to strengthen itself by holding those who belong to it by right.” He praises the new immigrants as moral, law-abiding, and willing to work—a blessing to the country, whose children will comprise its citizenry and populate its churches.
Today’s immigrants from Mexico and Central America are, by the most reliable studies, similarly hard working, law abiding, and likely to raise children who contribute significantly to the economy of the United States. They are also mostly Catholic. A survey of immigrants from Mexico and Central America suggest that the primary drivers of immigration are high homicide rates, gang activity, and other violence. According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, poverty and violence were the forces that led to the mass of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014.
If asylum seekers from Mexico and the Northern Triangle are fleeing violence or escaping economic insecurity, the criminalization and harsh treatment of immigrants and their families constitutes a humanitarian crisis. Just as it built churches, orphanages, schools, and other institutions to serve the Irish who fled famine, so now the Church reaches out to children whose parents are deported; offers resources to men and women who have recently been deported; provides respite to those who have escaped violence in order to seek asylum in the United States; offers temporary homes to migrants who seek a new life; and shares the Eucharist which makes all baptized Catholics members of a family, regardless of national borders.
Individual Catholics have often differed on political questions such as immigration. Yet what has remained constant through waves of immigration over the decades is the Church’s commitment to care for “the stranger in your midst,” to use language from the Old Testament. Reflecting Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, when He urges His followers to welcome strangers as Christ himself, the Church seeks to serve immigrants and to support them in their desire to find a dignified life for themselves and their families.
Catholic Extension is proud to work with many men and women who serve migrant communities throughout the United States. We support the diocese of Yakima, Washington, whose seminarians spend time in the fields to understand the lives of migrant workers. We support parish communities in Arkansas, many of whose members work in the chicken processing industry. We support farm workers in the Central Valley of California, whose labors provide much of the fruits and vegetables Americans consume. We support ministries in the diocese of Kalamazoo, home to the largest number of migrant camps in the country. And we support many ministries along the U.S.-Mexico border, the area which has occupied so much of our political discourse in recent weeks.
While our leaders continue to debate the questions of just immigration reform, the Church continues to serve the families who are new to the country, and who will—like so many generations before them—nurture citizens and future leaders.
Tim Muldoon is the author of the award-winning Living Against the Grain and other books, and serves as Director of Mission Education at Catholic Extension.