Immigrant children coming into this country have been the subject of much attention, debate – and, fortunately, great compassion by many – especially our Catholic charitable agencies and parishes. For the most part, they are young people, without their parents, who are arriving in this country seeking a refuge from poverty or gang violence. I was privileged today to travel to Northern Westchester and celebrate Mass for a group of these young people, to meet with them, and learn a little more about their circumstances and see where they are temporarily staying until they can be reunited, most often with their family members.
Former Mayor Ed Koch once told me, “Two women welcomed the immigrants to New York: Lady Liberty and Mother Church.” And he was right. I just returned from a brief trip to Ireland, and people there still talk gratefully of the welcome given to so many Irish refugees during the great famine of the 19th Century. We are called upon again today to care for a new group of immigrants, only this time the immigrants are teenagers – or younger.
Caring for the downtrodden, the outcast, the stranger among us, is part of our call as Catholics, and we here in the Archdiocese of New York have been doing just that for more than 200 years. Lincoln Hall, for instance, where I celebrated Mass this morning, began as a residential treatment center back in 1863 to care for orphans left destitute after the Civil War. The Archdiocese of New York has a long and proud tradition of caring for newcomers to our country.
Now, together, we are facing another crisis, one of children fleeing violence and risking their lives with the hope of finding family and shelter here. Pope Francis said it so well, late last month, when he reminded us that “this humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.”
And that is just what Catholic Charities, parishes, professionals and volunteers throughout the country are doing.
At Lincoln Hall and in similar residences children receive the temporary housing, education, health, and legal support they need to survive and begin to re-establish their lives.
Immigration is not a new “issue.” I have been very much preoccupied with the vulnerability of our immigrants and refugees because I meet them everywhere I go throughout our archdiocese: men, women, and children so grateful to be in America, so searching to find a home here, so eager to work, settle down, and become part of a nation that has traditionally welcomed and embraced the immigrant. I am grateful to those political leaders on both sides of the aisle, people like Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Peter King, who have led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. I am more than frustrated that too much partisan and self-interest politics up to this point has trumped the common good of our country. But. I am not giving up hope, nor the struggle. I continue to work and pray for the type of immigration reform our country needs to remain strong.
But these young people can’t wait for immigration reform. As Pope Francis rightly points out, this is a humanitarian emergency, and however they got here, these young people must be cared for now. Politicians and pundits might argue about how best to handle this humanitarian crisis. For us, the answer is simple thanks to guidance Jesus gave us more than 2,000 years ago:
“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”