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Church teaching, heritage forge Catholic bonds with immigrants.

The White House touched a nerve when in late July it announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants. The country is annoyed with Chinese smuggled into New York and California, HIV-positive Haitians released from detention and Arabs arrested in the World Trade Center bombing. The profound American ambivalence to new immigrants goes on. There is bad news and good news.

First the bad news. A July Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans want a decrease in immigration; that is double the 1965 figure, the highest since 1945. Only 37 percent, moreover, believe that immigrants become productive citizens and pay their fair share of taxes.

A recent CNN-USA Today poll shows that by 55 to 35 percent, people say the increasing diversity among immigrants threatens rather that enriches American life. In addition, more than 40 percent say immigrants who arrived over the last 10-15 years are less likely to make good citizens than those who came earlier.

A majority of every major group except blacks favors reducing immigration. Indeed up to 40 percent of the population want immigration to stop.

One can wonder whether the nativism and racism now visible in Europe will reappear here.

The good news is that America continues to be open and generous to those who yearn for its shores. In the 1980s the United States took in 8.9 million legal immigrants and up to 2 million illegal ones. And, despite the nativist polemic heard almost everywhere, little restrictive immigration legislation has passed Congress in recent years.

In 1990, Congress raised the limit for legal immigrations from 500,000 to 700,000 - exclusive of refugees and asylum seekers. The present limit of 700,000 a year means that America still takes in more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined.

It also appears the United States does not have the will or the heart to keep aliens out along America's 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Mexicans constitute 40 percent of the immigrants - posing special problems for California, which has 1.3 million illegal immigrants. In a recent year, California spent $1.7 billion for the education, medical and social needs of these migrants to the state.

One of the arguments on behalf of the North American Free Trade Act is that free trade will increase jobs in Mexico and thereby decrease the pressure to cross the Rio Grande.

It is difficult to conclude that this is a great new crisis. America has always been a magnet to the world and Americans deep down want to perpetuate that longing. If the mosaic of people and the babble of different tongues present in America disappears, the United States could lose its mystique and its genius.

Religious groups - especially the Catholic bishops - have been advocates of a generous immigration policy. In 1976 - and since - the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged to "resist injustices against immigrants, to assist them in their need, and to welcome them into our nation and our community of faith as fellow pilgrims on the journey to the Father."

Catholics have a special bond with recent immigrants, since well over half of them were born into the Catholic faith. Soon immigrants and their children will be making up one-third or more of America's 58 million Catholics.

The Lord made our relationship with immigrants very clear and beautiful in Levisticus 19:34: "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be as the natives among you and you shall love them as yourselves."
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Author:Drinan, Robert F.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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