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‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’

"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Exodus 19:33-34)

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35, 40)

These words certainly resonate in my life. My great-great- grandfather, Stephen Martin, completed the journey to these shores in 1842, landing in New York. Almost immediately, he purchased a large Bible, which has since fallen into my hands. My family treasures this volume, in which is lovingly recorded our family information. Increasingly, Americans are a mixture of many nationalities, including various African, Asian, European and Latin American peoples who, each in turn, were regarded as second-class beings by those who had arrived ahead of them.

Scarcely a day passes without news or commentary about immigration legislation. As Catholics, we seek to express God’s love for all. Thus we are mindful of the welfare of all — those who are citizens, those who now live in our midst without benefit of citizenship and those who seek to enter our country. We in the church do not spell out the particulars of any legislation. Rather, we deal with principles. The overriding one is that immigration reform will only work if the legislation deals with every aspect of the issue.

All legislation should be designed to promote greater respect for the rule of law and the control of our borders. We in the church do not support open borders. Every nation has a right and obligation to secure its frontiers in order to protect all its citizens. Nonetheless, this principle cannot be enforced in isolation, but must be linked to the following principles:

Congress must locate a just and compassionate method to provide the many millions of undocumented residents of this country, who are already contributing to our country’s economic health, an opportunity to earn citizenship. A broad and easy “amnesty” would simply create other problems of justice. So, they should be given an opportunity to earn legal status. Perhaps this could include paying a fine and any taxes owed, working, learning English and then being processed after those who are legally here. Something like this could sharply reduce the economic exploitation of workers in our country.

In addition, there must be a more generous system of legal entry. Clearly, the undocumented are filling jobs that others do not want; these jobs need to be filled. If the current system of immigration prevents them being filled legally, this only encourages illegal entry. Change is needed to lessen the role of human smugglers and the death of the undocumented in our southwestern deserts.

We know that unjust economic, social, and moral conditions in other nations often compel men and women to leave their homelands in search of opportunity, safety and freedom on our shores. Respecting the sovereignty and prerogatives of other nations, we must encourage the sort of reforms that will lessen the pressure for their citizens to leave behind home and family.

Finally, any reform legislation must support the integrity of families. A deportation system that breaks up families is unworthy of so great a nation. Likewise, we must acknowledge fully, and not grudgingly, the rights and citizenship of young people born in this country of parents who are undocumented.

Obviously, we in the Catholic Church have a special concern in this matter because so many of the recent immigrants belong to the household of our faith. Still, our concern must be for every stranger in our midst. Each of us has been, or is descended from those who have been, strangers in this land we now call home.