Interjecting faith, reason, and human dignity into the immigration landscape

By Bishop Michael Olson

North Texas Catholic


In this May 2016 picture, Eva Lara reacts as she reaches for her grandmother Juana Lara through the border wall during a brief visitation near where Mexico and the United States meet at the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. Eva, who lives in the United States legally through legislation that temporarily prevents young immigrants from being deported, has not seen her grandmother since the family left Mexico when she was three years old. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Immigration has become a divisive issue in Texas. But that should not be.

As the second largest state with more than 26 million residents, we are a land of immigrants, whether our family immigrated to Texas in 1836 or in 2017.

In no small part, the Catholic Church of Texas and the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth in North Texas have lived out the faith given to us by Jesus Christ by welcoming the stranger and the needy into our midst. In fact, since 1528 the Catholic Church has been a part of Texas history, providing pastoral care to the communities who settled here over the centuries.

As the pastor of more than 900,000 Catholics in North Texas, I am compelled to oppose the strong anti-immigrant mood that prevails among many today. Furthermore, I exhort the people of our diocese to balance the need for a secure nation with the Gospel call to welcome and integrate the needy and the oppressed. For by serving these “least of us” — the immigrant, the migrant, the refugee — we serve and encounter our Lord (Matthew 25:34-46). Catholics should consider how their rhetoric manifests the disposition of their souls — angry, afraid, selfish, prejudiced?

When I speak on immigration, some respond that I “should stay out of politics and stick to spiritual matters.” However, the Bible tells us clearly, “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

Our long history of Church teaching, papal encyclicals, bishops’ pastoral letters and statements, and New and Old Testament Scripture have consistently reinforced our obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Our Lord Himself. The Bishops of the United States and the Bishops of Mexico acknowledged the rights of nations and immigrants in the pastoral statement, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.”

  • People have the right to find opportunities in their homeland
  • People have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families
  • Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders
  • Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection
  • The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected

The bottom line is this: While the Church recognizes the need of a nation to impose reasonable limits on immigration, it also advocates that nations must never violate the human dignity of undocumented migrants, or trample on their basic human rights. We must therefore use this lens of faith to assess the current migration issues at hand today.

SB 4, Border Walls, and the Neglect of Human Dignity
Over the past several months, my brother bishops and I have expressed our disapproval of Senate Bill 4 due to its failure to meet three important principles that go hand-in-hand with the social teaching of the Church.

Targeted:  Laws regarding incarceration and deportation should target those who present a danger to society. Enforcement should make sure the basic rights of large groups of innocent people are not curtailed. 

Yes, everyone must follow the laws of our country and state. But not all undocumented immigrants are criminals, as is implied by the current anti-immigration attitude. Most made the dangerous trek here to escape poverty, violence, persecution, or government corruption. Many are honorable and good members of our community, volunteering, giving back, exceling in our schools, and ministering in our churches. 

The anti-sanctuary cities bill, in particular, harms the common good because it fosters an attitude of suspicion of the legal status of all immigrants.

Proportional: Enforcement of immigration laws should not feature excessive penalties or force. Immigration officers and border patrol agents should receive intensive training on appropriate use of force and enforcement tactics. 

Enforcement should not force migrants to risk their lives, as we tragically witnessed in San Antonio a few weeks ago — when 10 people died from extreme dehydration and heat while locked in a tractor-trailer that was part of a smuggling operation. Many of the migrants were from Mexico and Guatemala. These men, women, and children, desperate to reach a better life, ran the profound risk of traveling at least 150 miles in the back of a sweltering trailer.

Moreover, laws like SB 4 place the burden of verification of legal status of everyone upon local law enforcement officials. This burden complicates the already stressful responsibilities of officers who serve and protect our communities. This part of the bill is also leading to widespread fear and distrust among members of our local immigrant communities.

Humane: In the enforcement of any law, the dignity and rights of a person should be protected and respected. 

As my brother Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin put it, “Families should not be divided and should receive special consideration. Undocumented immigrants should not be detained for lengthy periods or intermingled with violent offenders. Asylum seekers should receive appropriate screening by qualified adjudicators. Children should be accommodated within a child welfare context.”

We should not be fooled into thinking that SB 4, a border wall, or other anti-immigrant measures in any way resolve the complicated problems of our immigration system — problems that harm families, children, and impoverish our community in general. We must continue to advocate for more just and comprehensive immigration laws, which include reunification of families and creating more just pathways to citizenship.

Being a Hospitable Church and Community
The Catholic Church of Texas and of North Texas, in particular, must continue our faith-based tradition of welcoming immigrants and refugees. Just as the Church welcomed Europeans in the 1800s, we continue welcoming unaccompanied children and families from Central America seeking asylum; Cubans fleeing to Texas seeking freedom from communism; and special immigrants — including Christians from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — who are fleeing terrorism, as well as victims of human trafficking and survivors of torture.

We are called more than ever to avoid the division and fear and instead respond with the compassion Christ extends to us.
I call on each of us to seek the graces of the Holy Spirit and help the immigrant and refugee. And I call on us to support meaningful immigration reform. 

God Bless.

Immigration has become a divisive issue in Texas. But that should not be. As the second largest state with more than 26 million residents, we are a land of immigrants, whether our family immigrated to Texas in 1836 or in 2017.