Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles on immigrant rights
At the 129th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus
August 3, 2011

I know this issue is hard for people -- including many people who are trying to be good Catholics.

I am not a politician. I am a pastor of souls -- and an American citizen. That is my perspective on these issues. As pastor of the largest Catholic community in the United States, I am deeply affected by our nation's immigration policy crisis.

Historically, the Catholic Church has always been a Church of immigrants -- just as America has always been a nation of immigrants. American Catholics form one spiritual family drawn from some 60 ethnic and national groups from every continent. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, ministry and worship is conducted in 42 languages

About 70 percent of the flock I minister to is Hispanic. And Los Angeles is not an exception -- but a sign of the future. More than one-third of Catholics in America today are of Latino descent -- and that number is growing. Hispanics accounted for almost 60 percent of our population growth in the last ten years. They now make up 16 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly one-quarter of all American children age 17 and under are Hispanic.

So immigration policy, especially as it relates to Latino immigration, is of deep concern to us as Catholics and as citizens. The Church's perspective on these issues is rooted in Jesus Christ's teaching that every human person is created in God's image and has God-given dignity and rights.

From a Catholic standpoint, America's founders got it exactly right. Human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are universal and inalienable. They come from God, not governments. And these rights are not contingent on where you are born or what racial or ethnic group you are born into.

The human right to life, the foundation of every other right, implies the natural right to emigrate. Because in order for you and your family to live a life worthy of your God-given dignity, certain things are required. At minimum: food, shelter, clothing, and the means to make a decent living. If you and your family are unable to secure life's necessities in your home country due to political instability, economic distress, religious persecution, or other conditions that offend basic human dignity -- you must be free to seek these things in another country

In Catholic thinking, the right to immigration is a "natural right." That means it is universal and inalienable. But it is not absolute. Immigrants are obliged to respect and abide by the laws and traditions of the countries they come to reside in. Catholic teaching also recognizes the sovereignty of nations to secure their borders and make decisions about who and how many foreigners they allow into their countries

Our government has the duty to consider immigration's impact on the domestic economy and our national security. However, we must always make sure that we are not exaggerating these concerns in ways that deny the basic humanitarian needs of good people seeking refuge in our country

These Catholic principles are consistent with America's founding ideals. They are also consistent with America's proud legacy as one nation under God made up from many peoples of all races and creeds. Based on these principles the American bishops support comprehensive immigration policy reform that protects the integrity of our national borders and provides undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn permanent residency and eventual citizenship

So the political issue is basically this: How can we find a way to accept these newcomers and balance that with the need for our nation to protect our borders, to control the flow of immigrants, and to keep track of who is living within our borders?

But the important thing for us is to approach these political issues -- not as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives -- but as Catholics. And as Catholics, we should be alarmed by the human toll of our failure to fix our broken immigration system...

America has always been a nation of justice and law. But as Americans we have also always been a people of generosity, mercy and forgiveness. Unfortunately, our nation's current response to illegal immigration is not worthy of our national character.

My point is simple: We need to find a better way to make immigration policy and enforce it. And in this policy debate, Catholics have a special place. Because Catholics -- especially -- bear the truth about all Americans. Namely, that we are all children of immigrants

If we trace the genealogies of everyone in this room today, they will lead us out beyond our borders to some foreign land where each of our ancestors originally came from. In my personal case, the first members of my family came to what now is Texas in 1805

Our inheritance comes to us now as a gift and as a duty. At the least, it means we should have some empathy for this new generation of immigrants. For Christians, empathy means seeing Jesus Christ in every person and especially in the poor and the vulnerable

And we need to remember, my friends: Jesus was uncompromising on this point. In the evening of our lives, he told us, our love for God will be judged by our love for him in the person of the least among us. This includes, he said, the immigrant or the stranger

Very few people "choose" to leave their homelands. Emigration is almost always forced upon people by the dire conditions they face in their lives. Most of the men and women who are here illegally have traveled hundreds even thousands of miles. They have left everything behind, risked their safety and even their lives. They did this, not for their own comfort or selfish needs. They did this to feed their loved ones. To be good mothers and fathers. To be loving sons and daughters.