On September 8, speaking to a crowded Heights Room, the Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles called for more mercy for immigrants, telling his audience: “People do not cease to be our brothers and sisters because they have an irregular immigration status.” Visiting as the guest of The Church in the 21st Century Center, Gomez gave a talk on Immigration, National Identity, and Catholic Conscience.
Gomez said he is “disturbed by the drift of our national conversation” on immigration. He called for Catholics to work to change that conversation, and outlined three steps to make that change: see the human face of immigration, reconsider our American identity and history, and be more merciful.
Focusing first on the human face of immigration, Gomez said “I am not a politician, I am a pastor. For me, immigration is about people.” Behind every statistic is a story—of poverty, exploitation, violence. Gomez emphasized that we must not forget these stories, and that immigrants from Latin America come to the US for the same reason immigrants have always done so: “for a better life for their families.”
Gomez’s talk then took an interesting turn, as he challenged the traditional narrative of American history: “Normally the history of America begins in the 1600s…but long before the pilgrims there were missionaries and explorers, in Florida, Texas, California, New Mexico.” Gomez explained that the first non-Indigenous language spoken in America was Spanish, not English. Gomez urged the audience to recognize the Hispanic-Catholic roots of America. “We hear warnings all the time that immigrants from Latin America are ‘changing our national identity.’ What identity are we talking about?” Gomez argued that accepting our full history would lead to a deeper understanding of culture and what it means to be American.
Gomez then turned to his final point, the need be more merciful. Gomez spoke of the fear that threatens to overwhelm many Americans—about their jobs, terrorism, their community splitting apart. “As a pastor” Gomez knows that “those fears are real, we must take them seriously.” But he also fears that we are “closing in on ourselves,” losing our sense of mercy and our ability to feel the suffering of other people. The American obsession with deportation, Gomez argues, blames “the most vulnerable…making them the scapegoats for our country…There’s something wrong with that. We’re better people than that.”
He spoke of our duty to “be keepers of the American dignity.” How? By getting to know actual immigrants, helping and accompanying them: “People do not cease to be our brothers and sisters because they have an irregular immigration status…however they got here, we cannot lost sight of their humanity without losing our own.”
Despite the current reality, however, Gomez said he believes that the American people are far more compassionate than the loudest voices would lead us to believe. “I have hope,” he said. During the Q&A following the talk, he talked about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ current immigration campaign, “Justice for All.” He said that the bishops are committed, but that the lay faithful often “do not understand the issue.” He spoke of wanting to get more involved on Catholic college campuses. “If you have ideas, let us know,” he told the students in the audience.
Gomez’s message was an appeal to Catholic conscience to rise to the demands of our faith and change the national conversation on immigration. “It is close to my heart,” he told the audience; his talk sought to make it close to the hearts of all who listened.