A Theology of Immigration


Author: Daniel Groody, CSC, '86

In November 2003, I attended a Mass in El Paso, Texas, along the United States/Mexican border. We celebrated Mass in the dry, rugged and sun-scorched terrain where the United States meets Mexico. In this liturgy we remembered all the saints and all the souls who have gone before us. We also remembered the thousands of Mexican immigrants who died crossing over the border in the last 10 years. Unlike other liturgies, however, a 16-foot iron fence divided this community of believers in half, one side in Mexico and the other side in the United States.

While Border Patrol agents and helicopters surrounded us and kept a strict vigilance, lest any Mexicans cross over, we sang, worshiped and prayed. We prayed for our governments. We prayed for those who died. And we prayed to understand better our solidarity as a people of God beyond our political constructions. I remember in particular the sign of peace, when one normally shakes hands or shares a hug with one’s neighbor. Unable to touch my Mexican neighbor except through some small holes in the fence, I became painfully aware of the unity we celebrated but the divisions we experienced.

A complex reality
For the last 15 years I have been talking to those involved in the Mexican immigration drama. I have spoken to ranchers who have seen their property trashed by immigrants who parade through their land and leave behind water jugs, litter and discarded clothing. I have spoken to educators and hospital administrators who feel increasing financial pressure from the influx of newly arrived immigrants. I have listened to Border Patrol agents tell stories of being pinned down by gunfire from drug smugglers. I have seen congressional leaders establish policies aimed at safeguarding a stable economy and protecting the common good, especially since September 11th. I have spoken to coyote smugglers, who guide people across the treacherous terrain along the border and find some profit in doing so. But most of all, I have spoken to immigrants and heard hundreds of stories of what it is like to break from home, cross the border and enter the United States as an undocumented immigrant. I have tried to understand not only the physical terrain of the immigrant journey but also the spiritual terrain of their faith lives.

In speaking with these different groups along both sides of the border, I have learned that each constituency believes it has certain rights. Some speak of the right to private property, American jobs, national security, civil law and order or a more dignified life. Despite the legitimacy of each of these claims, I have learned that not every claim has equal authority. From a faith perspective, I have learned that those who suffer the most deserve the greatest hearing, even though, ironically, their voices are often the last to be heard, if at all. As some of the most vulnerable members of society, immigrants themselves have helped me see that whatever “rights” are at stake in this debate, one of the most neglected is human rights. These rights have become clearer as I have listened to immigrants tell their stories at various points along the Mexican/American border, including detention centers, hospitals, shelters, train stations, deserts, mountains, and along rivers and highways and other places in Mexico and the United States.

Their stories have helped me see that the journey of an undocumented immigrant is a descent into the vast expanses of hell; they journey toward a “promised land” through what author Luis Alberto Urrea calls “the devil’s highway.”

The evolution of the Mexican-American border
Until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, when Mexico ceded what is now much of the southwestern United States, people moved freely throughout the area that is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. The border area remained relatively porous and enforcement was relatively light through most of the 19th century and 20th century. In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was founded and began tightening the border through more systematic enforcement efforts. In time, stricter border policies emerged, especially in the 1980s when President Reagan declared a war on drugs. This “war” made the border an increasingly militarized zone, as American drug enforcement entities combated wealthy, organized drug cartels for superiority in firepower and surveillance.

The devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1983 triggered an explosion of foreign-owned factories along the Mexican side of the border. U.S. companies took advantage of the exchange rate by moving their assembly plants from the United States to Mexico in pursuit of cheap labor. Hundred of thousands of Mexican citizens, many of whom had lost their land due to Mexican agricultural policies, came north to work in maquiladoras_. In the last few years, however, more than a quarter of these plants have closed, as companies have discovered even cheaper labor in Asia. Hundreds of thousands of jobs along the border have disappeared, digging the Mexican economy into a deeper hole and making unemployment and underemployment more the norm than the exception.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment that was brewing in California, further intensified border control with such policies as “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, Texas, and “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego. By erecting walls and fences, by stationing border patrol agents every quarter-mile along the border in the major urban areas, and by the increased use of such military technology as drone planes, infrared technology and motion sensors, crossing outside of normal ports of entry became much more difficult. This, by design, has significantly raised the stakes of migrating illegally.

While policies like “Operation Gatekeeper” were meant to deter immigrants from crossing illegally, they have not changed the flows at all but merely redirected migrants into the more life-threatening territory of mountains and deserts, where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees in the shade. Many will walk 50 miles or longer in treacherous conditions. Because it is physically impossible to carry the food and water necessary for this type of trek, many do not make it. I realized how extreme this journey was when one day a coyote offered me a “scholarship” so that I could see what the journey was like. Instead of paying the going rate of $1,800 to take me across the border, he said he would “teach” me what it was like for free:

We’ll walk for three or four days, and all you will have with you are a few tortillas, some sardines and water. The food is so bad you won’t want to eat, and you will get so tired you won’t think you are going to make it. If you push on you can do it, but if you fall behind we will leave you behind. And you should wear high heel leather boots, because we come across rattlesnakes in the desert at night, but if you have the right boots on, the snake’s teeth won’t penetrate your skin and you’ll be okay.

Every day immigrants dehydrate in deserts, drown in canals, freeze in mountains and suffocate in tractor trailers. As a result the death toll has increased 1,000 percent in some places. One immigrant named Mario said to me, “Sure I think about the dangers. I think about them all the time. But I have no choice if I am going to move forward with my life. The fact is, amidst the poverty in Mexico, I am already dead. Crossing the desert gives me the hope of living, even if I die.”

If they make it across the border, most immigrants will work at low-paying jobs that no one except the most desperate wants. They will de-bone chickens in poultry plants, pick crops in fields and build houses in construction. As one person in Arizona noted, “It looks like entering the U.S. through the desert as undocumented immigrants do is some kind of employment screening test administered by the U.S. government for the hospitality, construction and recreation industries.” Willing to work at the most dangerous jobs, an immigrant a day will also die in the work place, even while for others the work place has become safer over the last decade. Immigrants die cutting North Carolina tobacco and Nebraska beef, chopping down trees in Colorado, welding a balcony in Florida, trimming grass at a Las Vegas golf course and falling from scaffolding in Georgia.

With an economic gun at their backs, they leave their homes because hunger and poverty pushes them across the border. As Mario told me in an immigration detention center:

Sometimes my kids come to me and say, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” And I don’t have enough money to buy them food. And I can’t tell them I don’t have any money, but I don’t. I can barely put beans, potatoes and tortillas on the table with what I make. But I feel so bad that I sometimes will go into a store, even if it is two or three blocks away, or even three or four kilometers away, or even another country in order to get food for my family. I feel awful, but nothing is worse than seeing your hungry child look you in the eyes, knowing you don’t have enough to give them.

Immigrants are pushed by economic poverty, pulled by the hope of a better life in the United States and blocked by an iron wall on the border. It is ironic that many Americans hailed the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and mourned the death of the 250 or so people who died in 28 years, but many others have stood idle as we have constructed a wall between Mexico and the United States, even while 3,000 immigrants have died trying to migrate to this country over the last 10 years.

Crossing the borders of our own minds
Despite the difficulties immigrants undergo in crossing the border, perhaps the more difficult borders to cross today are the borders of our own minds, especially those that guard our deep-seated biases and prejudices, and those we put up when we encounter someone we consider to be totally “other.” Mexican immigrants bear some of the worst of the stereotypes in today’s society. They are often looked at as illegal, non-taxpaying leaches who suck dry the funds of the local communities while they sell drugs, commit crimes and take jobs away from Americans. Some even lump immigrants into the same category as terrorists, without ever realizing that the terrorists of September 11th came in with legal visas and never even came through the southern border. Nonetheless, in the popular mind immigrants are perceived as a menace to the common good and the preservation of “American” culture. (People who make this argument fail to realize that European-Americans took away “American culture” years ago, culminating in the last battle at Wounded Knee against the Sioux Indians in 1890.)

Many immigrants begin to internalize some of the ways contemporary society typecasts them. “We are constantly reminded that we are less than everybody else,” said Lydia, “that we are poor, that we don’t have an education, that we don’t speak right, that we are lesser human beings in one way or another. Sometimes, we even begin to wonder whether God thinks that way about us too.”

The more challenging road for many of those who are not immigrants often means unlearning the negative stereotypes and seeing more clearly the inner worth, dignity and respective contributions that immigrants bring to this country.

_A Day Without a Mexican
“Our nation virtually posts two signs on its southern border: ‘Help Wanted: Inquire Within’ and ’Do Not Trespass,”’ says Pastor Robin Hoover of Humane Borders. Without the help of immigrant labor, the U.S. economy would virtually collapse. We want and need cheap, immigrant labor, but we do not want the immigrants.

A few years ago, the documentary A Day Without a Mexican tried to show what the U.S. economy would look like if there were no Mexicans working here. There would be no maids in hotels. No people to wash dishes in restaurants. No landscapers to mow grass. No cheap hands to do construction. No one to pick vegetables in the field. As a result, lettuce would cost more than $8 a head, industries would shut down, various sectors of the economy would be paralyzed. Even though the U.S. economy needs these immigrants, and even though multinational corporations profit from their labor, these immigrants are not afforded the same opportunities or open door that some immigrants experienced in previous generations. Instead of hospitality and openness, many immigrants find rejection, hostility and fear.

Today, immigrants might be greeted by vigilante groups and civilian border patrols who hunt them down, treat them like animals and even threaten to kill them. In parts of the Southwest, racist violence runs deep in such groups as the Civil Homeland Defense, Ranch Rescue and American Border Patrol (not to be confused with the U.S. Border Patrol). “If I had my way,” one rancher reportedly bellowed at a meeting with U.S. Border Patrol officials, “I’d shoot every single one of ’em.”

The fact is most immigrants are not stealing jobs from Americans; they are doing work that other Americans do not want to do. Moreover, not only are immigrants not a drain on the U.S. economy, but they contribute with direct and indirect taxes. Immigrants collectively pay more than $90 billion in taxes, yet many immigrants are afraid to use social services for fear it will expose their undocumented status.

Nonetheless, like previous immigrants from Ireland, Germany, eastern Europe, China and Japan, these Mexican immigrants are often valued for their cheap labor but are not afforded the human rights due to them as contributing members of society, notes Jorge Bustamante ‘70M.A., ’75Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Notre Dame They become a “disposable commodity” when they are no longer useful. It is here in particular that the scriptures and Catholic social teaching have had something important to say.

The relationship of immigration to revelation
According to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, immigration is not simply a sociological fact but also a theological event. God revealed his Covenant to his people as they were in the process of immigrating. This Covenant was a gift and a responsibility; it reflected God’s goodness to them but also called them to respond to newcomers in the same way Yahweh responded to them in their slavery: “So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Building on this same foundation, Catholic social teaching has reiterated that the true moral worth of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. John Paul II has consistently underscored the moral responsibility of richer nations to help poor nations, particularly with regard to more open immigration policies. While some in America claim these undocumented immigrants have no right to be here, the church believes that a person’s true homeland is that which provides a migrant with bread.

I remember talking to Moises in Tijuana. He told me he wanted to come to the United States because he could barely put food on the table with what he earned in Mexico. He said his ambition was simply to provide “bread” for his family. A few miles away, on the other side of the border, I was walking near a popular resort hotel on Coronado Island. There I met a woman who said she had come to the area because she was looking for a “specialty bread” she could not find anywhere else. The contradictions of the moment were striking. One need only to drive along the border to see, in the same visual glimpse, the striking contrast between the United States and Mexico, between the First World and the Third.

The Catholic church recognizes the right of a nation to control its borders, but it does not see this as an “absolute right,” nor does it see sovereign rights as having priority over basic human rights. While acknowledging the ideal of people finding work in their home country, the church teaches that if their country of birth does not afford the conditions necessary to lead a fully human life, persons have a right to emigrate.

While border reform does not mean naively opening our borders to everyone, as if there were no need to take into account other political and socioeconomic factors, the church does put human life at the forefront of the discussion. A community of faith reflects on the fact that when it comes to commerce, we have borders that are becoming more and more open. When it comes to labor, however, we have borders that have become more and more restrictive. In brief, we have created a society that values goods and money more than human beings and human rights, which contradicts the biblical narrative.

The gospel vision challenges the prevailing consumerist mentality of American culture, which sees life as an endless accumulation of goods, even while the rest of the world suffers. Jesus in his life and ministry went beyond borders of all sorts—clean/unclean, saintly/sinful and rich/poor—including those defined by the authorities of his own day. In doing so, he called into being a community of magnanimity and generosity that would reflect God’s unlimited love for all people. He called people “blest” not when they have received the most but when they have shared the most and needed the least. Christians, as such, distinguish themselves not by the quantity of their possessions but the quality of the heart, which expresses itself in service. Above all, this quality of the heart is measured by the extent to which one loves the least significant among us.

Many immigrants sit at America’s door like Lazarus, hoping for scraps to fall from the U.S. table of prosperity. They are seeking not simply charity but justice. In Matthew, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” The corollaries to the immigrant experience are striking. Hungry in their homelands, thirsty in the treacherous deserts they cross, naked after being robbed at gunpoint by bandido gangs, sick in the hospitals from heat-related illnesses, imprisoned in immigration detention centers and, finally, if they make it across, estranged in a new land, they bear many of the marks of the crucified Christ in our world today.

In part because of the Catholic church’s lack of outreach to Hispanic immigrants, it is not surprising that one out of five Hispanics has left the church in the last 30 years. This crisis has also been one of the reasons Notre Dame has created an Institute for Latino Studies. Led by Gilberto Cardenas ‘72M.A., ’77Ph.D., the institute studies critical issues facing Latinos in the United States. Beyond addressing the bleeding of Hispanics from the Catholic church, however, Notre Dame felt a moral obligation to reach out to Hispanics, as it had reached out to the Irish and other immigrant groups, and to help them develop a sense of dignity and pride about their culture and to help prepare them to become leaders in both church and society of the United States and the world.

The institute’s Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture examines the theological dimensions of Latinos, many of whom are greatly affected by the issue of immigration. As John Paul II notes:

"The immediate reasons for the complex reality of human migration differ widely; its ultimate source, however, is the longing for a transcendent horizon of justice, freedom and peace. In short, it testifies to an anxiety which, however indirectly, refers to God, in whom alone humans can find the full satisfaction of all his expectations."

And the U.S. bishops recently released a document where they sought “to awaken our peoples to the mysterious presence of the crucified and risen Lord in the person of the migrant and to renew in them the values of the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed.” It is on the margins where migrants live that the church is born.

Many immigrants offer a compelling witness of faith. I remember meeting Maria, who came north from Guatemala and wanted to work in the United States for only two years, then return home to her family. I met her on the Mexican side of the border just before her third attempt. In the previous 10 days she had tried twice to cross over the border through a remote route in southern Arizona. On her first attempt, she was mugged at the border by bandito gangs. Though bruised and beaten, she continued her journey through the desert and ran out of food. Just before she reached the road, she was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and put in an immigration detention center. A few days later she tried again. This time, her coyote smuggler tried to rape her, but she managed to free herself and push her way through the desert once again. After four days of walking, she ran out of food, water and even strength. The border patrol found her, helped her and then sent her back to Mexico.

I was curious about how Maria dealt with these trials before God. “If you had 15 minutes to speak to God,” I asked her, “what would you say?” I thought she would give him a long litany of complaints. Instead, she told me, “I do not have 15 minutes to speak to God. I am always conversing with him, and I feel his presence with me always. Yet, if I saw God face to face, the first thing I would do is thank him, because God has been so good to me and has blessed me so abundantly.” Maria, and many others like her, have reminded me that true faith reveals itself not during prosperity but adversity.

The Catholic church itself affirms, again and again, that we are one body in Christ. In the Eucharist, the church protests against the walls and barriers we set up between ourselves. If “migration” worked itself into the self-definition of all people, we might then realize that before God we all live in the same country, we all live on the same side of the fence. In reality, death is the ultimate border, the journey of faith is the ultimate migration, and God is the ultimate Promised Land. Christ teaches that we will be able to cross over this final border to the extent that we have been able to cross over the smaller borders in this life and see interconnectedness to each other.

Although Latinos have had roots in the United States for centuries, countless Latinos (many of whom are immigrants) fight for what the Irish did only a few generations ago. Throughout Notre Dame’s history, its students often were from immigrant families. In particular, the University became a place where the Irish—discriminated against in mainstream society—came to get an education and move their way up the social ladder. Most Latinos today are seeking what the Irish sought in America: a more dignified life, political or religious freedom and a decent standard of living that raises them above the oppressive tide of poverty. Notre Dame today has the same opportunity to reach out, educate and empower the children of Latino immigrants, just as it the Irish immigrants more than a century ago.

Father Groody is an assistant professor of theology at Notre Dame, director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the Center for Latino Studies, and the author of Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit.

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