Why I changed my mind about undocumented immigrants

| Father Joseph Williams | October 10, 2012 | 1 Comment

When I was a sophomore at Stillwater High School I had a social studies class titled “Contemporary Issues.” As part of the class, we formally debated various controversial topics. I don’t remember much about the class, but I clearly remember taking part in a debate on immigration. A classmate and I argued that those who came across the border without papers broke the law and should therefore be prosecuted.

It is hard for me to believe now that I once held that position. In fact, as I write this article, I am praying fervently for the safe passage of a parishioner who is attempting to re-cross the border from Mexico.

Let me explain why my view on this issue has changed over the years by sharing her story.

I met this woman — I will call her Maria — when I arrived at St. Stephen’s in South Minneapolis four and a half years ago. She volunteered to teach catechism to our parish’s children. I was immediately struck by her humility and joy.

During the next three years, I marveled at Maria’s child-like faith in God and love for all people. In spite of her own personal sufferings, she rarely missed an event at the church or an opportunity to share God’s love with others — whether that was on the city bus, in the park  or at the supermarket.

During those years, Maria worked a very difficult job while renting a single room. She sent most of her earnings back to her family in Mexico. When her mother became gravely ill a year and a half ago Maria made the difficult decision to return home.

I did not know that she was attempting to re-cross the border into the United States until her distraught sister came to our church on a recent Friday to tell me that she had lost communication with Maria for three days.

I would not have advised Maria to cross the border out of concern for her well-being. Each year, hundreds of immigrants die attempting to enter this country, and I am told that it is becoming more and more dangerous.  Nevertheless, I do not fault her or others like her for trying.

In serving the Latino population over the years, I have come to learn that Maria’s story is not unique. The truth is that people rarely want to leave their homeland. They leave because, like Maria, they are facing extreme economic and social hardships. Why else would they risk their lives to come here?

Complex issue

I thank God for the privilege of serving such humble and loveable people. I thank God that, through them, He has changed my attitude toward so many people of good will who are here without authorization.

Of course, we must not forget that many Latinos are here legally. I pray for that day when those who are not here legally — many of whom came as small children — might enjoy the stability of, at least, permanent residency.  I think they are a tremendous revitalizing force, not only for the church but also for society and the economy.

It is difficult to translate stories and personal experience into public policy. Even as I hope for comprehensive immigration reform, I appreciate the complexities of the issue of non-authorized immigration. I recognize the right of sovereign nations to regulate their borders. The church affirms this right, even as she reminds wealthy nations of their special obligation to accommodate immigrants.

This was echoed by Pope John Paul II at Yankee Stadium in October 1979 when he reminded the American people of our special responsibility: “We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our doors. In the light of the parable of Christ, riches and freedom mean a special responsibility. Riches and freedom create a special obligation.”

Father Joseph Williams is pastor of St. Stephen in Minneapolis.

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