WASHINGTON (CNS) — In early May, after the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, made a statement about an executive order dealing with immigration, he seems to have received more than a few unhappy responses.

“A few wrote to me to say, among other things, that they are dismayed at my apparent lack of respect for our immigration laws,” said Archbishop John C. Wester in a May post on the archdiocese’s website titled “Laws are meant to protect human beings, not break them.”

Sometimes people say, “What don’t you understand about illegal?” he continued. He said he also has heard others talk about “those illegals.”


But “it is important to establish that no human being is ‘illegal,'” he wrote, and “how we refer to one another makes a difference.”

At the national and local level, church leaders have been trying to comfort immigrant Catholic communities, while at the same time responding to criticism from other Catholics about their outreach to immigrants.

“The issue of immigration continues to raise controversy at both the national and state level, often spurring passionate debate that offers little hope for reconciliation and resolution,” said a May 30 statement from the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Baltimore and Washington archdioceses and the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.

The statement urged Catholics and “all people of faith and goodwill to come together in a spirit of compassion, prudence, and cooperation to address the challenges faced by immigrants, elected officials, law enforcement and our communities as a whole.”

The Maryland conference statement asked local elected officials and lawmakers to “respect the spirit of our country’s Fourth Amendment protection against apprehension and searches of persons or homes without probable cause,” and to prioritize “the integrity of families and the ability of working parents to support and care for their children.” It also asked Catholics and others to respect differences of opinion, to listen and not resort to name-calling, “nor to allow partisan and hyperbolic factions to dominate the political debate on immigration.”


Archbishop Wester, whose archdiocese May 25 issued a memo to employees on what to do if federal immigration officials show up to carry out a raid or other activities on church property, urged others “not to be taken in by political sound bites or rhetoric that instills fear. Rather, let us take the time to hear the stories of those immigrants coming to our shores and borders.”

He said that while he respects immigration laws, it’s fair to say that the country’s “immigration system of laws is broken and completely inadequate to deal with the immigration reality we face in our country and in our world.”

That’s why the Catholic bishops of the United States have been advocating for immigration reform, he said, but “labeling people ‘illegals’ who are here without proper documentation dehumanizes immigrants,” he said.

Similarly, the Maryland conference statement urged others to learn about the root causes of immigration, the challenges immigrants face in navigating the country’s complex immigration system, and to develop relationships with immigrants and learn about their “hopes and dreams, fears and sorrows.”

Archbishop Wester said in his post that he respects immigration laws “in principle, even though they are terribly flawed just now.”

“However, at the same time,” he continued, “I am obliged by my conscience to welcome the strangers in our midst, particularly if they are fleeing economic, political or religious persecution or if they are sure to become victims of violent and organized crime. To simply call some of them ‘illegals’ does not do justice to the ethical and human reality of their situation.”