On St. Patrick’s Day, defending the new immigrants

Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, c. 1909 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The patron saint of Ireland did not make the cut in the wonderful memoir of my colleague James Martin, S.J., My Life With the Saints, but Patrick’s legacy seems secure all the same. As this is being written, we are in the middle of that mid-Lent frenzy that once was called St. Patrick’s Day, but which now may fairly be described as St. Patrick’s Season. Nearly a week before Patrick’s feast day, a friend of mine took a bus from the Catskill Mountains to New York’s Port Authority terminal. As my friend gathered his bags and prepared to de-bus, as a flight attendant might put it, the driver said, "Have a nice holiday."

My friend did a mental double take. Holiday? What holiday? What had he missed? True, he had just spent a few days in Rip van Winkle country, but surely he hadn’t slept through the last few weeks of winter. What holiday? Passover? Easter? Memorial Day? Arbor Day?


What holiday?

No longer tranquil and relaxed after his mini-vacation (or perhaps not so mini!), my friend tried desperately to resolve this mystery. Finally, the shop windows of Manhattan, festooned in green, provided the answer: Saint Patrick’s Day! That holiday!

This year, that holiday happened to fall in the midst of a bitter controversy over immigration. As the descendants of a past generation of immigrants marched in parades all over the country, other Irish-Americans marked the St. Patrick’s season by writing to their federal legislators or demonstrating outside the offices of congressmen and senators.

Their concern was the plight of the new generation of immigrants, the immigrants of the 21st century. Like the Irish who came to America in the 19th century, the new immigrants seek a better way of life and are willing to work harder and longer than the rest of us to achieve that goal. And like the Irish of 150 years ago, some 12 million new immigrants are here without proper papers—the difference being that 150 years ago, nobody was particularly interested in documenting newcomers.

Most of today’s undocumented workers are from South and Central America, but there also are 40,000 illegal Irish, most of whom probably have more in common with their fellow immigrants than they do with fourth-generation Irish Americans.

The U.S. House of Representatives, in a fit of legislating that any 19th-century Nativist would recognize, has passed a bill that would, in essence, make criminals of those who minister to these immigrants. According to Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a whole new class of people who perform acts of mercy could be subject to federal prosecution.

It was fitting, then, that one of the most powerful voices raised against the House bill was that of Cardinal Roger Mahony, descendant of Irish immigrants. He announced that his archdiocese would ignore the House bill if it became law. The church, he said, is not in a position of negotiating the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy. We must be able to minister to people regardless of how they got here.

Those were the words he addressed to secular leaders. To the faithful, the cardinal delivered a stirring sermon on Ash Wednesday, imploring Catholics to remember immigrants in their seasonal prayers and sacrifices.

To the question: Who is my neighbor?’ Jesus’ answer is clear, the cardinal said. As his disciples, we are called to attend to the last, littlest, lowest and least in society and in the church. This Lenten season, join me in committing our Lenten practices to making room for the stranger in our midst, praying for the courage and strength to offer our spiritual and pastoral ministry to all who come to us, offering our prayer and support for the ones in our midst who, like Jesus, have no place to rest their heads.

Not surprisingly, the cardinal’s political statement attracted more attention than his spiritual plea. For those who support a crackdown on illegal immigration, the cardinal’s pledge to ignore the House-approved bill sounded suspiciously like civil disobedience. Which it probably is. Interestingly, there has been little commentary on the left about the cardinal’s rather bold political stance. In another circumstance, on another issue, one might have expected some commentators to complain about this apparent violation of church-state separation.

The United States is well within its rights to begin a serious conversation about immigration. How much is too much? Is it time to impose limits, not because new cultures are unwelcome, but because the country cannot sustain such huge numbers of new residents? And what of the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here? Should we make their lives even more difficult and hope they will go back where they came from, or should we concede the obvious by offering them amnesty?

These are, surely, legitimate topics deserving of serious debate. But the House bill is not a conversation. It is a draconian response to concerns about culture and security. It is driven by post-9/11 fears of foreign terrorists, but it would mostly affect the lives of people we see every daypeople who bus tables in restaurants, look after children not their own in a park or tend a neighbor’s garden.

As the descendants of Irish immigrants celebrated their heritage in mid-March, it surely was heartening to see that some of them, like Cardinal Mahony, took the time to remember today’s immigrants. What better way to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors?

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