Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
[Recently] I traveled with Bishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller and two priests of the archdiocese to the State of Michoacan in Mexico in order to learn about the place where many Catholics of Mexican origin in the Archdiocese of Chicago were born. The visit was first of all pastoral. Archbishop Alberto Suarez of Morelia, Michoacan, had come to visit us in Chicago and invited me to return the visit. The visit was also informational. I spoke with many bishops and other pastoral leaders and many civic officials to help me understand the situation of the people in Michoacan and help them understand the lives of their friends and families who have come here. Finally, the visit was religious, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Morelia and then to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
In Mexico, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is omnipresent. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531 in what is now Mexico City, and she has been central to Mexican history ever since. Before she appeared, many different tribes and peoples inhabited what is now Mexico. When she appeared, Our Lady of Guadalupe created a people.
As I prayed and thought about Mary at her shrine in Mexico City, I asked myself what creates the American people, what does every American refer to when thinking about our identity. A case can be made that it is the law. The law created us as a people. We take our identity as a people from our relationship to the Constitution, and one’s identity before the law is a primary source of one’s personal value and of one’s relation to others. The myths of the settling of the West are based upon the coming of the law to an uncivilized wilderness. Legal proceedings constitute much of our news. As diverse as we are in culture, in language, in religion, in economic class, what we all have in common is the law. We are a nation of law. In the United States, the law plays the role that Our Lady of Guadalupe has in Mexico.
The sorest point in the current debate about immigration is the illegal status of so many residents in our country. One can grant that most are law-abiding, most contribute to the economy and are good to their families, most pay taxes and are woven into the social structure of our cities and parishes; but if they are here illegally, that remains the most important marker of who they are. Their status before the law is more than a fact; it is a symbol of their value.
In the current debate about reforming the immigration laws, the U.S. bishops have made it clear that they are not in favor of illegal immigration. No one has a “right” to come into someone else’s country illegally. We are faced, however, with a situation caused by our own government’s not effectively protecting our country’s borders over many years. The causes of illegal immigration are many. Outsiders search for a better life or job here, and employers import workers they need. Our government has often been unable or unwilling to stop the flow of workers, looking away because, in fact, their labor supported our economy. Now we are told there are about 12 million men, women and children in our country who are not here legally.
In the face of that fact, the U.S. bishops have asked for a reform of our law, a reform that can only be accomplished on the federal level. The reform should start with concern for the basic respect that is owed all human beings, no matter their status before the law. It should provide a path to citizenship for the great majority who are law-abiding citizens now, and it should separate for deportation any who are criminals. The path to citizenship has to begin with registration with the government, so that those here without legal documents can begin to live on the right side of the law. Since reform is not an amnesty, it should probably include the payment of a fine for illegally entering our country, provisions for learning our public language, English, and for studying the basic laws of our country. These and other possible elements of the reform of immigration laws for those who want to live here permanently need to be debated publicly.
Part of the reform of immigration law might include a temporary visa program for workers who would not take up permanent residence in the United States. An adequate supply of such visas would do much to reduce the illegal smuggling of people across the border, which has made it a place of human trafficking, of drug trading and of violence. The other part of such a program would be a nationwide employment verification system that would enable the government to be sure that employers hire only workers who are here legally. This system would have to be carefully monitored, with adequate legal safeguards for both workers and employers.
These are suggestions that the bishops have put forward in the hope of influencing public discussion about immigration and the law. Finally, we are talking not only about law but, more importantly, about people. The U.S. bishops have said that the presence of people from Mexico in our country is a blessing. Most of them are of the household of the faith. We are at home with them, in their house or in ours. We have a common mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe. May she help us to be fair to one another in legal terms and lead us to love one another in the church.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago