During a historic address to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis honored the memory of four Americans -- President Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton -- who helped shape our nation’s values and can inspire us, in the midst of conflicts, “to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”

In calling on our own past heroes, the Pope used his moral authority to remind our nation that we are better than what our recent political behavior would suggest.

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We are a welcoming and compassionate nation that recently has allowed itself to be mesmerized by opportunistic presidential candidates who have turned nativist to score points with the vocal anti-immigrant minority.

Despite Pope Francis’ statement that “we, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” some candidates have determined their political goals can be met by looking “strong on immigration,” code for dividing American communities by stoking fear and suspicion of immigrants.

Our nation should feel ashamed about this deplorable display of xenophobia that is causing a disturbing rise in discriminatory, hateful, and even violent behavior.

Last month in Boston, a homeless Latino man was viciously attacked by two brothers as he slept. They urinated on him, beat him with a metal pole and broke his nose, saying afterwards they were galvanized by anti-immigrant remarks of a leading conservative presidential candidate. When the candidate was asked to comment on the incident, he initially rationalized the actions as the behavior of “passionate” supporters.

More recently, in a town just outside of Houston, Texas, Blanca Borrego was arrested in front of two of her children after waiting hours for her medical appointment. She had valid private health insurance, and had been treated by her doctor for 18 months for a painful cyst in her abdomen.

The purported reason for the arrest was tampering with a government record. But comments by the arresting officers, who heartlessly told the children their mother would be deported, indicated the arrest resulted more from suspicion she was undocumented, and less about the document in question.

A doctor’s office should be off limits to immigration or law enforcement agents, similar to churches and schools. In any doctor-patient relationship, trust is of paramount importance, and we must feel free to openly and honestly confide in our doctor. That trust should extend from the examination room to the reception area where patients are first received. Ms. Borrego entered the clinic with an expectation of privacy and safety, and left in handcuffs.

The increasing nativism is not exclusively aimed at Latinos.

At a suburban Dallas school, a 14-year-old Muslim boy and son of Sudanese immigrants, Ahmed Mohamedwas recently arrested and suspended from school for bringing to campus a homemade clock to show his teacher. It was another case of immigrant profiling: Muslim boy equals “terrorist,” and clock equals bomb. The student has been invited to the White House by President Obama, who has called for tolerance.

Days later, a questioner at a presidential campaign event in New Hampshire falsely equated Muslims with terrorists, and the conservative candidate did not disagree. That was followed by another presidential candidate’s assertion that a Muslim should not lead our nation. One candidate upstaged the other by whipping up the climate of hate.

The growing hostility against immigrants directly results from the anti-immigrant rhetoric, fear-mongering, xenophobia, and bigotry that certain presidential candidates are using to mobilize nativist voters in order to win. But they won’t. We can’t let them.

The political tactic is as extreme as it is dangerous. It encourages the kind of vigilantism that occurred in New England and Texas, with life-threatening and traumatic consequences.

This hateful environment hurts the health and safety of our communities. The widely reported Blanca Borrego case will discourage immigrant families from seeking basic health care services. The tenuous relationship between immigrants and law enforcement or government officials could diminish even further and undermine policies that encourage immigrants to report crimes.

Meanwhile, the president’s executive actions that would keep families together and provide them temporary protection from deportation remain in legal limbo in the  Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pope Francis has summoned us to view immigrants “as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories,” and responding to them in a humane and just manner. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” Pope Francis told Congress.

For the sake of our nation, the safety of our communities and of all of our families, I hope our political leaders heed the Pope’s calling to our higher moral character. We must prove we are better than the abhorrent political behavior displayed before his U.S. visit, and respect our nation’s immigrants, past and present.

Hincapié is executive director of National Immigration Law Center.