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July 4th at the border

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If we want to know what a Christian response to the immigration problem should be, we can just imagine what it would be like if we couldn't get adequate health care, education or nutrition for our children in America. Suddenly, Canada would have the border problem, we would be the illegal aliens - and we would have no doubt of what Canada's response should be.

This is a problem, in fact, that has been faced by America before. When the "tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were coming to America in droves last century, we didn't find ways to turn as many of them back as possible - we found ways to let as many of them in as possible.

Plenty of people worried, though. An 1889 New York Times editorial worried that immigrants would work for lower wages have higher fertility rates, and practice a "backward" religion: Catholicism. But the French-Canadians that they were writing about didn't hold on to their French for very long - and now we are a nation desperately in need of more faith, and more fertility.

As the boats came in from Europe, there was a fear then that so many immigrants would come, they would eventually outnumber the natives. We wouldn't have American towns with immigrants in them so much as we would have immigrant towns that happen to be in America.

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In the neighborhood where the National Catholic Register's editorial offices are located, those fears have been realized.

Our offices are in a neighborhood that is quiet, respectable - and mostly Italian. The phone book has some Ericksons and some Watkinses in it, but from Albertini to Zywocinski, it's mostly made up of European names that first turned up here at the turn of the 20th century. But you won't hear Italian spoken here at all anymore - not even a few doors down at Antonio's, where many of us often end up getting lunch.

Americans once feared that the undesirable elements of the old world would become dominant here, but the Sopranos are the only organized crime on the news lately.

It's impossible to know, but it is a fascinating thought experiment to imagine how the 20th century would have been different if we had figured out some way to keep the massive influx of immigrants out last turn of the century.

It would have required a Herculean effort - because it's almost impossible to keep fathers away from work when their children are in need. If we had spent our energy keeping immigrants out instead of employing them to do great things, what would have been left undone? The Brooklyn Bridge? The Hoover Dam? The interstate highways?

In the 1940s, our armed forces brought many European immigrants back to their homelands in American uniforms, where they defeated the Nazis. If we had kept them out of America to start with, how many of them would have been coming at us in Nazi uniforms instead?

But of course, we didn't keep them out. We initiated a program at Ellis Island to catalogue immigrants - and quarantine them when necessary - so that they could enter into the United States legally and safely. The various political machinations in Washington, D.C., are ugly to watch, but insofar as our lawmakers are trying to find an equivalent process for our time, we welcome the efforts at immigration reform.

We would suggest a few important ancillary reforms, though - one for lawmakers, and one for the church.

1. Teach Americans about America.

What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is truly exceptional. We celebrate a document - the Declaration of Independence - which founded our nation not on military power, but on moral principles about the human person. What makes America unique isn't hot dogs, Star Wars or Barry Bonds, but that it recognizes that people "are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

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If we rediscover the power of these principles, it won't matter how many immigrants we let in - America will grow stronger. If we forget these principles, it won't matter how well we keep immigrants out - America will cease to be.

2. Teach immigrants to be Catholic.

We can't afford to take the faith of Latino immigrants for granted. Our churches have a duty to serve them, and must embrace the forms of popular piety that will attract immigrants to parish activities, and keep them in the faith. If we fail, we'll be lucky if they become Protestant. They're more likely to become secular hedonists.

This Fourth of July, take a moment to thank God you are Catholic and American - and pray to him to send more Catholic Americans that are truly both.


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