C21 Panel Discusses Catholic Perspective on Immigration

by Libbie Steiner


On March 30, the Church in the 21st Century Center hosted a panel of three experts on the changing demographics of the Church and how the immigration system affects Catholic families today. Hoffsman Espino, an assistant professor at the School of Theology and Ministry, spoke about the recent findings of his study of the emerging Hispanic population in United States churches. Mary Holper, an associate clinical professor at Boston College Law School, offered her first-hand experiences of the American immigration system through running an immigration law clinic. Donald Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, spoke about the Catholic perspective on keeping families together.

Professor Espino began the panel by introducing some of the conclusions of his recent study of immigrant Catholics. He said that “Catholicism in the United States is rapidly changing” with Hispanic Catholics emerging as the “new Catholic majority.” Changing populations mean major changes in the priorities of many Catholics: “poverty, violence, and social dislocation” are among the priorities of many Hispanic Catholics. Parishes are changing programs or creating new programs to address the needs of this “new version of the immigrant Church,” including offering many more programs and Masses in Spanish to accommodate different language needs. The study also raised concerns about Catholic education of Hispanic children. Nearly 1 in 4 children in the United States are Hispanic, most of them Catholic, yet only a very small percentage of those children attend Catholic schools. Professor Espino and several audience members expressed the need for Catholic schools to become more affordable and offer programs that are more inclusive of Hispanic families. Professor Espino said that ultimately, the “heart is the question of family.”


Mary Holper discussed the various ways the American immigration system affects Hispanic Catholic families. For Ms. Holper, the key question is, “how does our system keep families together?” She pointed out that “the definition of family in immigration law isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world thinks.” For example, a child raised by a grandparent in another country who later gains citizenship in the United States is not able to petition to bring the grandparent to join them because they are not the child’s biological parent, even though the child thinks of them as their parent. Additionally, people born in other countries may not always have perfect documentation, such as birth certificates, and that may prevent people from gaining citizenship. Ms. Holper said that while the series of executive actions by President Obama have been helpful in deferring deportation for various groups of people, the system is still deeply flawed and issues such as the “detention labyrinth” keep families separated for extended periods of time.


Donald Kerwin offered a summary of the Catholic perspective on issues of immigration. He encouraged the audience to reframe their paradigm of immigration, saying, “What’s so offensive about amnesty anyway? Aren’t we the Church of forgiven sinners?” Mr. Kerwin said that “people who are illegal are created in God’s image” just like us, our families, and friends, and therefore they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in our country just like anyone else. He cited the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer,” as an example of the bishops being “extraordinarily countercultural” in their reaction to the immigration debate. In the letter, the bishops say that nations must provide opportunities for their people to flourish and not have to migrate, but also that migration is a human right: “the voiceless underground [of migrants] still has rights.” With 500,000 people being detained each year, it is difficult to think about “Hispanic families and ministries not affected by deportation.”


Mr. Kerwin stated that we as a Church desperately need the “faith, vitality, and optimism of our immigrant brothers and sisters.” Immigrants are not ‘aliens’ coming to take our jobs and threaten American ideals, but they are “our co-religionists, family, friends, and colleagues: they are us.”

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