The story of America is the story of immigration. That is the message of Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez’s important and timely book entitled, “Immigration and the Next America” (Our Sunday Visitor). In it, Archbishop Gomez argues that the immigration debate is about much more than immigration.
At the heart of the immigration debate, Archbishop Gomez states, is an opportunity for national renewal. In rediscovering the full history of our nation, and re-committing ourselves to its founding ideals, we will better understand what it means to be an American — that it is not defined by insular, racial, ethnic definitions or Anglo-Protestant culture. Anyone can become an American.
Such a renewal will allow our nation to better understand the aspirations of aspiring citizens and pass the “human rights test” of immigration reform.
Archbishop Gomez claims that America’s history is not only English, but was deeply shaped by other cultures, particularly Hispanic. The origins of America, he says, are really to be found in three zealous
religious missions to the New World: the Anglo-Protestant, based on the Reformation; but also the French and Spanish missions rooted in the Catholic renewal of the Counter-Reformation.
Mexico, for example, was the headquarters of the Spanish evangelization of North and South America and brought people from both continents together. Active Spanish missions were present in San Antonio, Texas, before George Washington was born.
Similarly, the first “thanksgiving” was not celebrated by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1621. It was celebrated by Spanish missionary priests in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565.
Just as religious zeal shaped America’s origins, our nation was peopled in many cases by immigrants seeking to practice their religion free from fear. These men and women used their labor and literally built this country. In fact, one of the Founders’ objections to the rule of King George III was that the colonial authorities were too restrictive in their immigration policies.
Understanding these often for-gotten parts of the American story clarifies that America was always shaped by interactions with other nations and cultures, particularly those of Central and South America. By contrast, the lack of a proper historical framework impedes the immigration debate and has often led Americans into a distorted and narrow sense of our own identity.
The American creed
Archbishop Gomez agrees with G.K. Chesterton that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”
According to Archbishop Gomez, American democracy and national identity are built on the pillars of four essentially religious assumptions: the sovereignty of God, who is the Lord of nations, peoples, and history; that all men and women have a divine beginning and transcendent destiny created by God and for God’s purposes; to fulfill these purposes God endows us with rights and freedoms; and finally, that government exists to secure justice by protecting the “unalienable” rights of the person.
Part of the American story, unfortunately, is the constant struggle to live these ideals, even among the founding generation. As Archbishop Gomez states, “The common thread of prejudice in American history is the desire to define who is an American along narrow racial, ethnic, and religious grounds.”
Archbishop Gomez contends that defining American identity in narrow ways usually arises in a climate of fear in times of great change. He contends that much of the opposition to immigration reform comes from a recognition that America is changing, and not for the better — a sentiment he shares.
Yet, Archbishop Gomez also acknowledges that such fear-based attitudes are not consistent with who we are as Americans or our founding ideals. He says that we will only truly be able to fix the problems of our immigration system when we re-commit ourselves to the American creed of the sovereignty of God and the dignity of all human persons endowed with unalienable rights.
A renewal of historical purpose and ideals along the lines Archbishop Gomez suggests will not only help us meet the test of immigration reform, but will also re-frame our approach to other policy challenges. If such a renewal takes place, the “next America” may be a better America.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.