Like many Americans, I can trace a line in my ancestry to the “Catholic hordes,” though I have never said it that way. The term is antiquated, once representing a majority sentiment of mid-19th century Americans who actively protested immigration in their time.
Irish, Italian and German nationals, the majority of whom were Catholic, were either fleeing famine or drawn by the promise of jobs and a better life. They not only swelled the general population in the U.S., they changed the religious landscape. From 1850 to 1906, Catholics grew from 5 percent to 17 percent of the total U.S. population. Over a century later, as successive generations of those immigrants have settled the West, fought in wars and fueled our economic growth, their stories have transformed into our proud national and Catholic heritage. They played a key role in making America great the first time.
While we have long reconciled our national angst over the hordes of Catholics from Europe populating our cities and towns, our struggle with immigration remains a stumbling block for this nation. In September, the debate landed squarely on the shoulders of the approximately 800,000 young people whose lives were thrown into limbo as a result of the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The legal issues surrounding DACA made it problematic, and while the uncertainty that repeal has created is troubling, the long-term possibilities and implications are positive.
The passage of the DREAM Act, which has bipartisan and public support, would be an improvement over DACA. Unfortunately, politics are threatening to stall progress and lead us closer to devastating consequences for these young, productive, members of our schools, businesses and neighborhoods.
Failing to pass the DREAM Act, and even delaying it, touches a nerve for the Catholic faith and Church in profound ways. First and most fundamentally, it is a direct assault on the common good, that core tenet of Catholic Social Teaching that is both theological and practical. It is what Jesus points to as the greatest commandment in Mark 12:30-31: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your strength . . . [and] . . . [y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The love of God and the love of our neighbor are inextricably related. From a practical standpoint, undermining the security and safety of young people who have grown up knowing the United States as home and have become productive members of this country, makes our communities weaker. It unnecessarily injects fear, distrust, anger and resentment into our communities, and that is bad for everyone.
There is another historical consideration to consider around the DREAM Act and the so called “Dreamers” who would be impacted. While much has changed since the 1850s, the faith of our immigrant community remains heavily Catholic. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), a quarter of all Catholics in the United States are immigrants, and 60 percent of Catholics under 18 are Hispanic. Today’s Dreamers are no different in their faith than the “dreamers” from Ireland, Italy and Germany in the 19th century — they are a modern Catholic horde. We can celebrate the fact that open discrimination of groups based on their faith is no longer acceptable, but the downside now is that differences in nationality blind us to our commonalities in faith.
This is all happening at a time when one of our primary concerns as a Catholic Church in the United States is the growing number of people who are leaving the faith. The demographic of greatest concern are millennials who were raised Catholic but mark “NONE” on surveys under religious affiliation. Among Dreamers, this age demographic remains committed to their Catholic faith for the same reasons that the immigrants of the 1800s held to their faith — because it is an identity, a place that says “welcome” in a nation that often says “get out.”
The time has come to move forward toward a solution, look past the contentious politics surrounding this debate, and instead see it as a profoundly moral and human life issue which challenges both our national and Catholic foundations. Our nation and our church were built by young, hard-working, men and women like today’s Dreamers. We need an immediate legislative solution which protects our young people so they can live without fear of deportation and continue to contribute fully to our nation, communities and their families.