By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

On March 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) marked the anniversary of the United States Refugee Act, which was passed in 1980, and so we reflect upon it this week.

Where have we come from?
So many of us, whose families have been settled in the United States for a long time, nevertheless come from backgrounds involving immigration to this country. In many cases, that immigration was accompanied by hardship, prejudice and the hard work and determination that was necessary in order to become a part of life in our beloved country.

The Book of Leviticus reminds us that these concepts are also not foreign to what we call Salvation History, that is the long history of God’s relationship with His people as He prepared them for their Redemption. The Chosen People knew the hardship of exile, flight and settlement in a foreign land and so we read in the Book of Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The Bishops of the United States have consistently affirmed the right of nations to regulate their borders according to the common good of the country. However, we do not want to forget the long tradition our country enjoys of welcoming refugees and those seeking a safer and more prosperous life in the United States. We would also do well to keep in mind that, throughout our history, it has very often been those who were the least welcomed upon their arrival, who have made some of the greatest contributions to the life of our country.

We are all aware of the famous inscription on a plaque within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, which greeted the ancestors of so many of us when they arrived at our shores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Commitment to those seeking a safe haven
In commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act, the Bishops of the United States are speaking from experience. The Conference of Bishops of our country (USCCB) is the largest resettlement organization in the United States. In this work, the Conference has mirrored the fact that the United States has long been a safe haven for the oppressed of the world. The humanitarian intervention of the people and government of the United States has been manifested time and again throughout our history. The Act passed in 1980 sought to codify “this commitment to the protection of refugees by allowing the admission of refugees on a systematic basis for humanitarian relief and by standardizing the resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the U.S., with the goal of facilitating their achievement of economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible” (USCCB web site:

The statistics that support the commitment of the Conference of Bishops to this work of Resettlement and Migration indicate that this is much more than a philosophical commitment in the abstract. The USCCB coordinates its work with over 100 local Catholic Charities organizations and dioceses throughout our country and resettles over a quarter of the refugees admitted to the United States each year. Just since the passage in 1980 of the Refugee Act we are commemorating, the United States has admitted over 2.5 million refugees from various parts of the world. In that period, the Catholic Church has resettled over 800,000, or 32 percent of them. Anastasia Brown, Director of Resettlement Services for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently stated: “While we have come a long way in 30 years, there remain millions of refugees who live in danger and deserve stronger protection. As a leader in humanitarian relief, the United States must continue to take the lead in this global effort.”

“Justice for Immigrants Campaign”
It is certainly part of a continuity of ideas to pass from our Christian concern for refugees to the same concern that we are called upon to display towards immigrants. The Bishops of the United States have initiated a program called the “Justice for Immigrants Campaign,” which hopes “to ensure that our Catholic values are an essential component of the ongoing dialogue surrounding the issue of immigration law reform in our nation. We are a country of immigrants seeking a way of life that is highlighted in our constitution and supported by our longstanding Catholic traditions here in the United States” (My letter of 29 March to the priests of the Archdiocese asking their assistance in this Campaign).

In the letter, which I have just quoted, I have also introduced postcards as a tool to invite the faithful of the Archdiocese to “understand, embrace and live out the Gospel tenets of this campaign.” The postcard’s suggested message to legislators is: “I ask that this year you support immigration reform legislation that keeps immigrant families together, adopts smart and humane enforcement policies, and ensures that immigrants without legal status register with the government and begin a path toward citizenship. Our families and communities cannot wait!”

Why are the Bishops involved?
Because of the sometimes controversial nature of the question of immigration, there is the possibility of misunderstanding the message and position of the Bishops of the United States. The Bishops are not in favor of an “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. They do favor a “window” whereby present illegal immigrants can show that they are productive, are making an effort to learn English and can be cleared through a rigorous criminal background check. Only after all this has been accomplished, along with the payment of a fine, do the Bishops support the legalization of presently illegal immigrants. This is called an earned legalization proposal.

The facts show that many of these illegal immigrants are necessary members of the American work force, often performing jobs that would go unfulfilled if they did not accept them. There is also a grave concern for the integrity of families, who are often separated for many years because of the backlogs in the visa process. The Catholic Bishops do not condone unlawful entry or circumvention of our country’s immigration laws but they do ask that a just, uniform and realistic system be in place to respond to the present realities of the situation. “The Church has a responsibility to shine the message of God on this issue and help build bridges between all parties so that an immigration system can be created that is just for all and serves the common good, including the legitimate security concerns of our nation” (Justice for Immigrants web site:

Just last month, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, was the principal celebrant of a Mass at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C., which was followed by a peaceful demonstration of over 100,000 people who marched to the Capitol on behalf of just and merciful immigration law reform. This is consistent with the message of the Gospel and the consistent care that has been shown for refugees and immigrants in this country of ours, which in so many ways is a country of immigrants. I urge you to go to the web site indicated above and respond to the postcard campaign that you may be able to participate in through your own local parish.

8 April 2010