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Migrants are children of God, regardless of legal status

Archbishop Wenski's homily at annual Migration Mass on Epiphany

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at the annual Migration Mass, celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 8, 2017, at St. Mary Cathedral.

Coinciding with today’s feast of the Epiphany, the Church in the United States celebrates National Migration Week. Remembering, as we do in the Christmas season, that the Son of God “migrated” from heaven to live among us and that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were themselves refugees in the land of Egypt, leads us to reflect on the circumstances confronting migrants, including immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking.

The National Migration Week observance began more than 25 years ago as a way to reflect upon the many ways immigrants and refugees have contributed to our Church and our nation. The theme for National Migration Week 2017 draws attention to Pope Francis' call to create a culture of encounter, and in doing so to look beyond our own needs and wants to those of others around us. In the homily given at his first Pentecost as pope, he emphasized the importance of encounter in the Christian faith: He says, "For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others."

But too often in our contemporary culture, we fail to encounter the migrants as persons, and instead look at them as “other.” If we are self-absorbed it becomes easy for us to remain aloof to their presence and suspicious of their intentions. National Migration Week reminds us that the migrant is a child of God — whatever his or her status or country of origin may be.

This Mass in which various national and language groups participate exemplifies this culture of encounter that Pope Francis is speaking about. This Mass, and the gathering that takes place afterwards, affords all of us, citizens old and new, alongside immigrants recent and longstanding, the opportunity to share with one another our hopes for a better life.

Migration is, more than anything, an act of great hope. Refugees flee their countries due to war and persecution which inspires them to risk everything for an opportunity to live in peace. Our brothers and sisters who are forced to migrate often suffer devastating family separation and many often face dire economic conditions to the point they cannot maintain a very basic level of living. Here in South Florida, we witness the drama of migration every day. It is a drama that each of you has participated in one way or another. It is a lived reality for all of us here in South Florida.

America has always been a nation of immigrants. And the immigration experience continues to define the life of the Catholic Church in the United States. Even those of us born in this country can find stories in our own families of parents, grandparents or great-grandparents leaving the old country for the promise of America.

Americans have a great national heritage of welcoming the newcomer who is willing to help build a greater society for all. Fear and intolerance have occasionally tested that heritage. Whether emigrating from Ireland, Italy or countless other countries, previous generations faced bigotry. Thanks be to God, our nation grew beyond those divisions to find strength in unity and inclusion. We have kept dear the words of scripture, “do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (HEB 13:2).

Our immigration system is broken – and this is evident in the large numbers of irregular immigrants who live, work and raise families here without a path to legal status and eventual citizenship. This is an intolerable situation because those whom some call “illegals” are victimized by this broken system: lack of legal status renders him or her vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. And while illegal immigration needs to be fixed, we must be careful not to demonize those who were drawn to this country in the hope of a better life for themselves and their children. Walls alone will provide no solution – at least, not a solution worthy of America.

It was heartening to read in Time magazine President-elect Donald Trump’s apparent opening to the “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors. They were beneficiaries of President Obama’s 2012 executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was a holding pattern, an executive order given by President Obama when the Senate failed to pass the “Dream Act.” It allowed certain undocumented immigrants to the United States who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for employment.

Many of these children and their families are, understandably, distraught at the prospect of DACA being rescinded in a new administration. However, President-elect Trump has promised a solution that will make people “happy and proud.” Let’s hope that he does so, for the “Dreamers” are American in their tastes, their language, and in their aspirations. They just do not have permanent legal status in the U.S. Granting legal status to “dreamers” is the right thing to do — it would certainly allow these young people to dream like Americans.

Revitalizing America’s inner cities and rebooting the nation’s industrial capacity are bold promises made by the incoming Trump administration. Tax reform, cutting down on the maze of business-killing regulation, fixing the spiraling costs of health care perhaps can help President-elect Trump make good on these promises. But right now, the only countries that are growing economically are countries that also have strong growth in immigration. Therefore, any “wall” built to keep out “illegals” must have sufficient doors to allow in a legal work force if future economic growth is to be sustainable.

Like the Magi who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts, the immigrant brings many gifts to his or her new country. Epiphany reminds us that God calls all peoples to salvation. In the universal Church, that is to say, in the Catholic Church, people of every race, language and ethnicity are embraced as brothers and sisters. Our national motto, “E pluribus unum” (Out of many one), recognizes that rich diversity of peoples. As a Church we must witness that diversity does not divide us — only sin can. Diversity does not divide us but rather this diversity enriches us all.

In a world which faces the globalization of indifference, a world in which the poor, the weak, the refugee are considered “disposable,” the Church, “in welcoming the stranger among us,” seeks to create a culture of encounter. As Pope Francis says, “Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.”  

Comments from readers

VICTOR LOPEZ - 01/09/2017 07:07 PM
Are the muslims that want to kill us or at least convert us to islam and have our women as slaves just to procreate, part of the people of God in the Catholic Church?. Latin American people are one thing and we need to help them, but we should not put them together with other so called immigrants. Thank you Victor