As the Archbishop of Miami, a region with more than one million immigrants who came to America seeking a better life, I was pleased and hopeful when the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But that was almost a full year ago. Ever since then, the leadership of the House of Representatives has offered a litany of delays and excuses for inaction and obstruction. These political whimpers stand in contrast to the cries of torn-apart immigrant families that echo in parishes across the country. Parents of American children are deported. Eleven million of our neighbors live in constant fear of losing their loved ones, their jobs, their place in a country that has become home.
This issue isn’t just about immigrant communities, it’s about our values and identity as a nation. My father immigrated from Poland at a time when America had not only freedom and opportunity that the world admired, but also a more functional immigration system for people like him who wanted to become American. Immigrants faced a welcoming statue, not a forbidding wall. Restoring that opportunity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a common-sense way to maintain our global leadership. The immigrant communities I have served as a priest and a bishop deserve the same shot my dad had, and we will all benefit if Congress builds a road to citizenship for them.
Despite the long months of political delay in Washington, the church’s commitment to passing immigration reform is unwavering. During the holy season of Lent this spring, when Catholics reflect on Jesus’s wandering and suffering in the desert, five of my fellow bishops held a mass at the US-Mexico border in Arizona in memory of the thousands of people who have perished crossing into this country. The pastors then gave the sacrament of communion to hands outstretched through the rusty bars of the border fence. It was a somber exercise that highlighted the needless suffering and death that are woven into the status quo of our broken immigration system.
Today, we observe a more joyful moment of the church year – the mass of the ascension, which celebrates Christ’s ascent to heaven following the resurrection. To mark the occasion, five bishops including myself will hold a mass on Capitol Hill calling on House leadership to vote immediately on immigration reform that brings relief to immigrant families that are trapped in the shadows, exploited at work, and living in constant fear of being torn apart by deportation. With a simple vote in Congress, we can deliver 11 million people from a life of risk, suffering and vulnerability.
I believe Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) knows that passing comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing to do, and that there are enough people of good will in the House to get it done. What remains to be seen is whether these legislators understand the fierce urgency of the situation. Criticism from the partisan base might loom larger than the plight of an altar boy whose father awaits deportation, but which is more important?
For the Catholic lawmakers in particular, there is no longer any moral ambiguity to this question. In addition to the words and prayers of people like me, I hope they hear the voices of other church leaders: the priests who lead Catholic schools that serve immigrants, the Sisters who place children of deported parents into foster care, Pope Francis who condemns a “globalization of indifference” that takes immigrants’ lives, and the Gospel itself.
We are all speaking together with one voice. Reform our immigration system, bring our neighbors out of the shadows, and put our nation back on a path that honors our proudest traditions and highest ideals.
Wenski is archbishop of Miami and a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.