SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2016
10:00 A.M.


It is truly an honor to be able to address you, the graduate of the St. John’s University Class of 2016. I have been asked by your president, Dr. Conrado Gempesaw, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Peter D’Angelo, to address the issue of immigration since I know something about it, having worked with immigrants for my whole priesthood and now as a bishop. This topic is most appropriate because St. John’s University has a very high percentage of immigrant students or children of immigrants. You are in Queens, New York, one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States.   The immigrants of our diocese come from almost all of the countries of the world and seem to live here in harmony as is the situation on this campus. The current politicization of immigration by both political parties and, most especially undocumented immigration, in our country is truly unfortunately. This is a social problem that demands our attention, and one that needs a solution. It cannot be solved, however, without addressing the underling racist and xenophobic tendencies that have come to the surface, especially during this presidential campaign.


My approach to this issue will not be a religious one, although certainly the Sacred Scripture gives us much to think about when it comes to treating alien workers, the aliens in our midst, as in the book of Deuteronomy from the Old Testament, makes it clear to the Israelites that they should not abuse the alien, the workers in their midst, and that they should leave a portion of the harvest for those workers, reminding the Israelites that in prior centuries they too were aliens in the land of Egypt. In the New Testament, in Matthew’s Gospel, the scene of the Last Judgment reminds us that Jesus will judge us on how we have treated one another, especially when He says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”   Our welcome for the aliens and immigrants in our midst is truly an important understanding of our religious responsibilities.


Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has shown his love for immigrants, especially refugees, as he is the child of immigrant parents and grandparents. In the first weeks of his Papacy, the Holy Father dramatically went to the Island of Lampadusa, off the coast of Sicily, to welcome the African migrants who risked their lives to find freedom and many of whom lost their lives. Just last month, Pope Francis went to the Island of Lesbos off the coast of Greece where many of the Middle Eastern refugees, mostly from Syria, were making their first stop trying to make their way to Europe. He brought back with him to the Vatican 12 Muslim refugees for resettlement. His gesture was an example to the world and we in the United States. We must understand why it is important that our Nation, one built by immigrants, needs to keep an open door to those who will come.


Unfortunately, many of us do not understand our own immigrant roots, and do not understand the contribution that immigrants make to our society. This is especially the case for those who find themselves here without documentation. There seems to be a war cry today that says, “My ancestors came here legally. Why have these people come illegally?” In a brief review of our immigrant history, we recognize that until 1924, expect for the Chinese and a few others, there was no illegal immigration because our country was an open society in need of laborers. There could be no undocumented immigrants as we understand it today. Prior to 1924, immigrants needed only to have a sponsor who would guarantee that the person would not become a public charge and that they would meet public health requirements. Today, our Nation still welcomes immigrant workers who fill important jobs in the economy, however, it does not have the sufficient legal opportunities that are necessary to supply our Nation with a workforce. Most of the resulting immigration violations involve breaches of civil law, and not criminal offenses. This must always be kept in mind.


I, myself, lived in an immigrant household. All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Italy. Instinctively, I absorbed the immigrant experience in our own household. As a young priest, I began working with immigrants, assisting them with legal matters and other opportunities as they adjusted to living in the United States. My interest in immigration led me to receive a masters degree in social work and then a Ph.D. in social work research. My dissertation topic was: “Profiling Undocumented Aliens in the New York Metropolitan Area.” I was in New Jersey at that time and even came to New York to the Brooklyn Diocese Migration Office, which took care of Brooklyn and Queens, and did field research interviewing migrants, undocumented people, to understand who they were and how they fit into our society. It was one of the first profiling studies of undocumented aliens, which proved to be rather accurate when the first legalization program took place in 1986 and post legalization profiles were made from the data collected.


I bring this to your attention because you are our educated future leaders. We must not be swayed by slogans and fear mongering. Rather, we must understand the facts relevant in all social problems, not fall prey to the fear and unfounded presentations.


Some of you in this Class of 2016 graduates may even be beneficiaries of the deferred action for childhood arrivals and your parents beneficiaries of the parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents, an administrative action on the part of President Obama’s administration which has recently been brought to the Supreme Court by States in contrary opinion. While not attempting to enter into this political fray and underlining motivations, all we can say is that legalizing those who are well integrated into our society has been an historical fact, including the legalization program of 1986 and even before. The immigration law always allowed for people who had long-standing presence in the United States and were well established to rectify their legal situation. We cannot deport 11 million people, nor should we, since they have made significant contributions to our labor needs and social fabric. In the future, we must look to our neighbors and trading partners, Canada and Mexico, to understand that we have entered into an integrated, globalized market where goods and services are traded and where the labor market integration will take place. We need to continue to build bridges between our neighbors and not build walls. To quote Robert Frost, “Walls do not make good neighbors.”


As new graduates, and likely new voters, the choices before you are complex. It seems that no candidate truly reflects all of the values that are learned here at St. John’s University. We need to make critical choices, but the choices should be based on the value of life at all times; unborn life and the lives of others in our midst. When we think of others and not of ourselves, we usually make our best decisions. Go forth with the spirit of the Vincentian education that you have received during your years at St. John’s. St. Vincent dePaul, the founder of the Vincentian order that has educated you, always opted for the poor, the downcast, those who were considered useless by society. Hopefully, you can make the same choice as you take your leave from St. John’s University.


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