“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt”
The Gospel of Matthew tells us the story of the flight into Egypt, when, shortly after the Nativity, the Holy Family was forced to flee the violence of King Herod in Bethlehem. Alerted by the Magi of the birth of a new King, Herod ordered the execution of all male infants in the city rather than face a rival to his power.
One can only imagine the fear and desperation felt by Joseph and Mary as they fled Judea, leaving behind their livelihood, their home and their families for a place in which they were strangers, unfamiliar with the customs or language.
The experience of the Holy Family is similar to the stories of so many immigrants who have come to the United States throughout our history. The reasons for immigration have varied, but the decision to leave behind all that is familiar is not one that is taken lightly.
During the period of mass European immigration to America in the 1800s and 1900s, tens of millions fled Germany, Ireland, Poland, Italy and other countries to escape political upheaval, religious oppression, dehumanizing poverty, famine, wars and endemic violence. These very same conditions have induced more recent immigrants to seek refuge in the United States.
As Congress debates the details of immigration reform, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, applying principles of Catholic social teaching, have advocated for policies grounded in justice, respect, and compassion. In this light, the bishops have urged lawmakers to address several key elements, among them the creation of a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and policies aimed at the preservation of family unity. The bishops recognize that there are strongly-held views on both sides of the immigration reform debate, and have called on all of us to maintain a discourse that is civil and respectful.
In their pastoral statement “Where All Find a Home,” the bishops of the Maryland Catholic Conference reminded us that “as Catholics, we must move past divisions and remain focused on the dignity of the human person and the welfare of families.”
These ideas are central to the work done every day at Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center in Fells Point. At the Esperanza Center, staff and volunteers work with immigrants to provide a variety of services: medical care for people lacking other access to health care; classes in English as a Second Language; social services and legal aid that focuses especially on family unification. In the past year, the Esperanza Center has provided these services to individuals from 77 countries.
One such individual is Gabriela Villafana-Cardoso. Gabriela arrived in Baltimore last December with her husband from their native Mexico, and she is currently studying English at the Esperanza Center.
College educated, Gabriela held a good job in Mexico, working for the government. Her hometown, however, like many in Mexico, is plagued by violence, of which she and her husband were victims. The difficult decision to leave came after the couple was carjacked at gunpoint. No longer feeling safe, she and her husband made the difficult decision to leave their families and their home.
Stories like Gabriela’s allow us to understand, on a personal level, the conditions that have caused immigrants to seek freedom, security and opportunity in the United States for more than two centuries.
As we give voice to our views on the contentious issue of immigration reform, it is helpful, in the words of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, to recognize that Catholics of good will can legitimately disagree on the best way to bring about immigration justice. Some common ground may, hopefully, be found in a shared determination to cherish the inherent dignity of all people. While the issue remains a source of disagreement, we must strive for a debate that is respectful and civil, and leads to legislation that is just and humane.
This is one in an occasional series of commentaries from Catholic Charities of Baltimore.