Address by Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of San Jose

Delivered at the 2019 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference
Santa Clara, California | March 12, 2019

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Address by Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of San Jose

Thank you for your kind introduction, Don, and to the Center for Migration Studies. You and your staff do great work in providing insight into the many issues we face today in the area of migration.

I also would like to thank Santa Clara University for hosting this conference and for your contributions to higher education.

I am proud to be here to welcome you and all the participants to the Diocese of San Jose. As you may know, this region hosts immigrants from around the world – from the high tech CEO to the farmworker working in the fields. So it is appropriate that you have chosen to have this important conference in San Jose, and I know you visited several church programs serving immigrants and refugees yesterday.

Your presence today underscores the crucial importance, at this moment in our nation’s history, of our diverse Catholic institutions working to strengthen their individual and the Church’s collective work in support of immigrant integration, defense, and protection.

As we gather this morning, however, not all is well in the immigration world. The last several years, you might agree, have been rather challenging as we grope as a nation with how to handle the issue of migration. It is perhaps one of the most emotionally charged issues of our day.

Your presence today underscores the crucial importance, at this moment in our nation’s history, of our diverse Catholic institutions working to strengthen their individual and the Church’s collective work in support of immigrant integration, defense, and protection.

The purpose of my talk – and I would say the purpose of this conference – is to understand how we as church can better address the immigration issue – to better welcome the stranger, as our Lord called us to do in the Gospel of Matthew. Pope Francis has declared that the church is the “Mother of all” and that we, as a church, should show the example of welcoming immigrants who leave their country in search of a better life.

We need to continue to set an example that we are not indifferent to the plight of the migrant, that we are not part of the “globalization of indifference” that the Holy Father has warned against. I believe that the Catholic Church globally and, indeed, in the United States does set that example of holding a hand out to our migrant brothers and sisters, through service, advocacy, education, and pastoral support. But, especially in this time of political controversy around the issue, we always need to look at ways to improve our outreach and support to immigrants and refugees.

How can we better deploy our limited resources? What models of integration would be helpful? How do we rework our messaging on immigration to reach Catholics who have valid concerns about our immigration laws? How do we better influence our elected officials who are charged with passing just and humane immigration laws? How do we improve our pastoral practices to better serve the needs of newcomers in our midst? These are all questions we must continually ask ourselves and seek answers for, always with the mind to improve and to grow. And I think these are some of the questions that will be considered here over the next few days.

But in doing so, we also must take note of the signs of the times, and respond accordingly. For example, we continue to see an unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied children arrive at our border. Since 2014, for the past five years, we have witnessed hundreds of thousands of families and children flee the Northern Triangle of Central America in search of safety. This is a humanitarian crisis that we, as a nation, cannot will away; and, as we have seen with the latest arrivals, we cannot deter from migrating, as the forces driving them are stronger than any deterrence policy we can throw at them.

I have been heartened with the response of the Catholic community to this crisis, especially during the dark time when families were being separated at our border. The response of Migration and Refugee Services of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in helping these families was inspiring, as well as the many Catholics who contributed resources to the effort. The response of other Catholic agencies, such as Catholic Charities USA and its affiliates, in providing care, as well as CLINIC’s efforts to find legal representation for these families and children, have been instrumental.

And the efforts of Catholic Relief Services in the Central America region in trying to create hope for the future should not go unnoticed. I also would acknowledge the dioceses along the border for their responses to this humanitarian flow and for acting as that welcoming voice to these families, providing shelter, a hot shower, and other necessities. My own former diocese of Las Cruces opened its heart and wallet to assist asylum seekers at our border. We opened the doors at our Cathedral in hospitality to these families as they sought to be reunited with relatives in the United States. Catholics and non-Catholics alike participated in this outpouring of care and hospitality, from the medical practitioner who gave medical check-ups to the volunteers who organized transportation to reunite families with relatives. The marvels we can accomplish and be proud of when we care for our neighbors!

Notwithstanding these valuable efforts, our church and nation are still debating how to address this situation. As past chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB’s) International Policy Committee, I came to learn that migration is a global issue which must be addressed multilaterally. With about 265 million people on the move globally, this is not just a challenge at our southern border, but in all parts of the world. I have visited with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syrian refugees in Lebanon, refugees and victims of trafficking from Myanmar in Malaysia, refugees in Indonesia escaping religious persecution in various parts of the Middle East, and victims of a horrific civil war in South Sudan. In this hemisphere, we have to work with the countries of the Northern Triangle and countries of the region to address the root causes of flight, over the long-term. These asylum-seekers have a right to remain in their home countries and live in safety and dignity. The Church is in a position to help in this effort, as we are present throughout the region, including here in the United States.

We also need to continue our push for the reform of our nation’s immigration laws. As you know, this is a very tough issue. We, along with others, have tried to get immigration reform enacted for many years now, only to have it fall apart during the process. But we cannot give up. We continue to have close to 11 million undocumented persons in the country, 70 percent or more who have lived here 10 years or longer. They have built equity in our country, have worked and contributed to our economy, and have strong families, and they still are subject to sudden deportation and family separation. They should be given a pathway and opportunity to earn US citizenship.

Part of the reform should include fixing the legal immigration system, so more legal avenues are available for migrants and their families to migrate safely. And we need to halt the ever increasing detention industry and push for alternatives which are humane. Enforcement would necessarily be a part of any reform, but it must be applied in a manner that upholds human dignity and respects human rights. Often, our current enforcement regime does not honor these principles.

Lastly, we need to help educate our fellow Catholics on immigration, so that they can help us in addressing the issue. With a variety of voices shouting from Washington, it is hard at times to decipher the facts of the issue. In doing so, as I mentioned, we need to answer their questions and address their concerns respectfully. We need to show a different way than what we see sometimes in our political discourse.

As Pope Francis has said, we must build bridges, not walls. Not just between nations, but between neighbors who are right next to us. The Church must be a voice for building understanding and trust, so that we can work together as a church and a nation.

In looking for guidance, we simply should look to Christ, who Himself was a child refugee who fled with Mary and Joseph to Egypt. He was an itinerant preacher who, in the Gospel of Matthew, had “no place to lay His head.” In teaching us about how to gain salvation, He taught us to “welcome the stranger.” Jesus Christ Himself embodied the migrant and refugee – He lived it. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So, in the eyes of the migrant and refugee, we see Him. This is our inspiration and our hope.

As we enter the Lenten season that ends with the truth and hope of the Resurrection, let us reflect on how we can respond to the newcomer. Our brothers and sisters are looking for hope and we, as church, need to be a beacon of hope, through a word of welcome or warm smile, a hot meal and shower, a shared prayer, or a letter to our elected officials. We should also continue to work to change the structures that prevent them from living a safe, dignified life.

I give you my prayers for your meeting this week, so you can discover new ways to serve the least among us. Know that God is with you in this effort.

Thank you.