Father Gus Puleo

When 11-year-old Sebastian De La Cruz sang the national anthem at Game 3 of the NBA playoffs June 13 between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, the reaction by people on Twitter to his appearance and talent was venomous.  Many believed that anyone that dark-skinned and dressed in a Mariachi outfit was not American enough to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The comments were:  “This lil’ (sic) Mexican snuck (sic) into the country four hours ago, now he is singing the anthem”; “Is this the American National Anthem or the Mexican Hat Dance?”; and “So illegal aliens can sing The National Anthem at games now?”

People assume that Sebastian De La Cruz is Mexican from Mexico, but he was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas.  He is a full-blooded American citizen of Mexican heritage.  As one can see, the debate on immigration is often wrought with misunderstandings, fear, misconceptions and even hatred.

America is changing and has been for a long time.  Globalization is shifting our economy.  Threats of terrorism from outside theUnited Statesare altering our idea of national sovereignty and security. Americais also changing from within its borders.  Therefore, we need to recognize that immigration is part of the many questions we have about our national identity and destiny.  What does it mean now to be an American?

For Catholics, who are good citizens of the United States, we have to consider these demands and debates in the light of God’s plan for us and the world.  The biggest challenge for us in this culture is to live out our faith in our work places, homes and communities.  This essentially means that we have to bring our Catholic faith perspective to the debate about immigration.

We are a nation of immigrants. As a result, historically Catholics have welcomed generations of immigrant families to the United States by our parishes, schools and charitable institutions that have helped many recent arrivals integrate successfully into the American way of life.  As Catholics, we help immigrants because of our strong faith that fosters a deep concern, compassion and genuine openness to others out of love of God and our neighbor, the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).

The theme of immigration is summed up clearly in Exodus 22:21:  “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We also learn how to treat immigrants in Leviticus 19:33:  “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In the New Testament in Hebrews 13:2 we are told to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Who can forget that St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus had fled to Egypt as described in Matthew 2:14?  Jesus, Mary and Joseph were immigrants in another land without privileges and papers.

We should also consider the entire scope of American history in order to better understand immigration as seen through the perspective of Catholicism.  Most of us have learned in American history that the founding ofJamestown,Virginiain 1607 was the first permanent settlement inAmerica.  This is a story of great leaders like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  It is also the history of great documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

But there is another story, a parallel story of Nueva España, the Spanish colonization of America that started almost a century before the arrival of the British colonists.  Catholics foundedAmerica’s oldest settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565.

Immigrant missionaries were naming rivers, mountains and territories for saints and sacraments years before the establishment of English settlements.  American geography demonstrates that our nation was born from an encounter with Jesus Christ through foreign missionaries: Sacramento (“Holy Sacrament”); San Antonio (“St. Anthony”); San Francisco (“St. Francis”).

Before this nation had a name, immigrant priests were baptizing people in the name of Jesus Christ.  The people of this land were Catholics before they were called Americans and Mass was celebrated in many parts of what is the U.S. today.

We as Catholics should know about Washington and Madison, but we also need to know the history of these great disciples in America like the Venerable Antonio Margil, a Franciscan priest who founded churches in Texas and Louisiana, and Blessed Junípero Serra, a Franciscan from Spain who evangelized California. Who could forget our first American saint — Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini — who emigrated from Italy to help Italian immigrants in this nation by founding schools, orphanages, hospitals and even a college?

I am a pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown, a parish filled with immigrants — Irish, Italians, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It is a thriving place for renewal of American Catholicism.  The Irish and Italians, who have been at the parish for generations, welcome the newly arrived Mexicans.  A few times during the year we have bilingual Masses in both Spanish and English as we worship God together as a unified community. Our mixed choirs sing our bilingual 40-Hours celebration. Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday Masses are celebrated in both languages.

For the celebration of Our Lady of Knock in August the church is packed with the AOH and the LOAH members, and also Mexican immigrants.  Our Lady of Guadalupe procession and Mass are attended by both Spanish- and English-speakers.  Our 4th of July float is filled with youngsters of African-American, African, Mexican and European descent.  The parish council is conducted in both languages — English and Spanish.

At the parish long-time immigrants who live in Norristown teach the newly arrived ones English.  A Mexican woman teaches Spanish to our office staff.  Retired teachers teach SAT preparation to children of immigrants attending high school who plan to attend college.   Food, clothing, books, pencils and toys are donated by neighboring parishes to help our newly arrived immigrants.

Our church tries to mirror the promise of America that we can all be one nation, including those with papers and without, speaking English and/or Spanish, from every race, creed and national background living together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is obvious that our present immigration system is broken.  There is obvious, great suffering felt by those living here without documents.  Families are separated.  Mothers and fathers live in fear of being arrested and deported.  We need immigration reform that provides for citizenship that includes the maximum number of people and improves family unity.

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., reiterates that “all undocumented people should be brought out of the shadows and placed into the new system.”  In the light, these persons can become active, productive and good citizens of this country.  Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles enumerates the terrible consequences of our immigration policies: “Families are separated, migrant workers are exploited, and our fellow human beings die in the desert.  Without positive change to our immigration laws, we cannot help our brothers and sisters.”

The cornerstone of this system is family unity and the dignity of each and every person no matter his status.   Hard-working, newly arrived Latinos along with descendants of immigrants who have been here for decades have helped renew our faith in God and revitalize St. Patrick Parish in Norristown.

As part of any national immigration plan our borders have to be made secure.  However, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City warns that “making the legalization program contingent upon border metrics that are practically impossible to achieve would effectively prevent the undocumented from ever becoming citizens.”

The border should not be a militarized zone.  In the past five years more than 1.5 million people have been deported, separating thousands of parents from their U.S.-born American children.  Mutual support, financial help, business ventures and serious talks betweenMexicoand theUnited Stateswould help make our immigration policies more just, and create more opportunities.

Any discussion about immigration reform has to reflect charity and compassion as already exhibited so often by the parishioners in my parish.  In my parish I have immigrants whose families have been here for generations like the family of Sebastian De La Cruz, others who have just arrived, children who had been carried across the border in the arms of their parents and newly born Mexican American citizens.  My parish is a microcosm of our nation.

The immigration plan does not target one group, but affects all of us.  Getting to know each other personally, praying and working together as fervent Catholics make us love and respect the dignity and worth of each other.  Together under God we can form a just and caring nation.

Therefore, we ask Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Patrona de las Américas,” to show us the way through love and courage to help each of us love our brothers and sisters in Christ like Jesus taught us.  Through her intercession we have justice for all forged by an immigration policy that would benefit all Americans — with and without papers — to live out the American dream.


Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown and professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.