Immigration and the Soul of America
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Immigration and the Soul of America

In a new book, Roman Catholic Archbishop José H. Gomez proclaims that immigration is always about more than immigration. It’s about families, national identity, poverty, economics and the common good. Elise Hilton reviews the book in this week’s Acton Commentary. The full text of her essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Immigration and the Soul of America

Immigration and the Next Americaby Elise Hilton

America was born from the Christian mission. This is not an article of faith or a pious wish. It’s historical fact. – Roman Catholic Archbishop José H. Gomez

There is little disagreement that “something” must be done about illegal immigration in the United States, but what that “something” is has become national debate. Do we close our borders so as to allow only a trickle of carefully chosen people? Do we simply apply the laws we already have? What do we have to gain or lose from a more liberal immigration policy?

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles explores the issue of immigration in his new book, Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2013.) Archbishop Gomez recounts his own immigrant roots; he came to the United States as a child when his parents emigrated from Mexico. In this small volume, Archbishop Gomez adds much substance to the national discussion on immigration.

Gomez proclaims that immigration is always about more than immigration. It’s about families, national identity, poverty, economics and the common good. Gomez says fear must not be allowed to play a role in our national discussion; some are afraid America will become something profoundly different than the nation we’ve known since our founding. Gomez gives personal insight on this fear:

I have my own fear. My fear is that in our frustration and anger, we are losing our grip and perspective. If you allow me to say this as a pastor: I’m worried we are losing something of our national soul.

Gomez is aware that there is deep resentment regarding the millions of illegal aliens in our country now. There is a sense of lawlessness, a violation of fair play and law that Americans depend upon, and a sense that illegal immigration is tearing at our nation’s fabric. He notes we are a “nation of laws” and that there is a sense of “chaos” in our nation due to the disrespect of our legal values. Quoting theCatechism of the Catholic Church, Gomez reminds us that, “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying out civic burdens.”

As California is poised to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants (Connecticut has already done so), Gomez’s discussion is timely. He implores us to find “a better way” than simply deporting those who’ve entered the country illegally but have been here for years, working and contributing to their communities. We cannot tear apart families, where some members may be citizens and others here illegally. He urges a change of perspective: These “illegals,” he says, are souls, not statistics.

Economist Andrew Yuengert, in his book Inhabiting the Land: The Case For The Right To Migrate (Acton Institute, 2003), explores the economic effects of immigration in the United States. Typically, he says, immigrants are less-skilled than citizens, so they have little effect on the skilled labor force. Yuengert asks if immigration creates a “drain” on government monies. Immigrants do have a higher rate of receiving welfare than citizens. Further, the larger families of immigrants can strain local schools and since illegal immigrants are typically paid less, they pay less in taxes than citizens. However, “these same immigrants make a net contribution to federal government finances, contributing slightly more in taxes than they consume in governmental services.” This, for Yuengert, means there is no “defensible position,” at least economically, for opposing legal immigration.

Yuengert is mindful that national security is a problem, but makes clear that this is a separate issue from immigration (as does Gomez.) He cites government inefficiency and the lack of enforcing laws already on the books as the cause for foreign terrorists gaining access to the United States.

The economic point that concerns Archbishop Gomez is that much illegal immigration is driven by poverty. People in the developing world have limited access to markets and educational opportunities, as well as often lacking rule of law. Gomez urges us to put effort into increasing economic opportunities, not in the form of foreign aid, but in partnership with our brothers and sisters in the developing world. With better opportunities in their homelands, the need for emigration will decrease.

Gomez’s declaration that “immigration is always about more than immigration” calls us to a thoughtful and compassionate national discussion. We are, he says, a nation that has always welcomed the stranger and helped them learn the “American creed.” This “creed” is made up of four essential points: that God is sovereign, humans are a divine creation with a transcendent destiny, humans are endowed with God-given rights and freedoms that are inalienable, and government exists to protect those rights and freedoms at the service of its citizens.

We need secure borders. We also need to be mindful that tearing apart families or deporting people who have lived and worked here for years is not sensible or compassionate. Gomez urges us to remember that America is and always has been a nation that celebrates diverse heritages, customs and traditions, all rooted in the “American creed.” He reminds us that immigration is not simply about moving people from one place to another; it is about the soul of our nation. By focusing on the vision of our founding, America can continue to be a land of hope and promise for all its citizens.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).