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LA Archbishop Gomez Wants U.S. Opened To More Immigrants


Jose Gomez was born in Mexico. He grew up to become a Catholic priest and moved to the U.S. Now he is Archbishop of Los Angeles. And he's been thinking for years about immigrants who fill the pews.

JOSE GOMEZ: We can be a beautiful example for the whole world. What Los Angeles is now is the way the world is going to be, in my mind - with the movements of people.

INSKEEP: People speak more than 40 languages in the archdiocese, which says it serves five million Catholics. Taking office in 2010, Archbishop Gomez confronted a sex abuse scandal. Now he wants to focus on a long-standing passion, immigration. He wrote a book on it, quoting both the Bible and Thomas Jefferson. When we visited his office, he said he wants generous treatment for Central American children now crossing the border.

GOMEZ: It seems that sometimes we see these young immigrants coming by themselves as a threat for our country. When, in reality, they're just looking for safety and for a place where they can grow up as normal, healthy, and good and strong members of society. I think our concern, in the Church, was that we will send them back right away, without really giving them the opportunity to (unintelligible) their situation.

INSKEEP: In fact, the government is moving to send back more quickly. This is the tendency of the administration and there are some in Congress who want to go much further. What do you think about that?

GOMEZ: I'm really disappointed. We got that piece of legislation from 2008, supported by President Bush and signed...

INSKEEP: Oh, the legislation that said that children should be given due process before...

GOMEZ: That's correct. So I think it really makes sense to study the cases of these kids coming because they're basically refugees. Yes, it is a challenge for us to have more of them coming here. But that's our responsibility in the world. And we have refugees from all the Middle East countries and all of the countries in the world when there is the situation of violence and poverty.

INSKEEP: What do you say to critics of illegal immigration who would suggest that their moral case, really, is quite simple? There is a law that's being broken by people who cross the border, send them back.

GOMEZ: It is true that in this country we respect the law and it is important to make that point. But the circumstances in which they leave and they come are not just because they want to come here for no reason. And we need to take that into account. Maybe the solution is to facilitate, somehow, their process of getting the documents and maybe have a penalty because they broke the law and maybe the penalty can be some kind of community service.

INSKEEP: If people paid penalty, such as community service or a fine or whatever it might be, would they ultimately get what they wanted by breaking the law, though, 'cause they would get to stay?

GOMEZ: I don't think that's what they want. They don't want to break the law. They come here because they want...

INSKEEP: But they want to stay. That's what their goal was.

GOMEZ: Yeah, but what is the reason for which they broke the law - because they wanted a better life. And they are not doing anything bad. They're just coming to this country to provide for their children, to have security, to make a contribution to the society. The bishops of the United States, we always have said that the immigrants are a blessing for this country.

INSKEEP: How does your personal life story affect your beliefs on this issue?

GOMEZ: My mother grew up in San Antonio, Texas. She graduated from high school there and her family, on her mother's side, has been in what is the United States now since 1805. So I guess, at that time, it was Spain. Then it became Mexico and then the United States of America. So that's the reality of it - especially that area, Northeast Mexico and Southeast Texas. It's kind of a geographic reality that the cultures are together. I have family Mexico. I have family in Texas. So we are the same. We are men and women, children, brothers and sisters and we want the same thing - to really make life better.

INSKEEP: You make another interesting point, in your writings, in that you say that you understand that some people are fearful about the future of the country and that they want to protect the country. But then you write, the dream of America, as this country was founded, is not the reality anymore. What did you mean by that?

GOMEZ: I mean by that, that the openness to the basic values of this country like fate, family, work, to have a comfortable life, is becoming more and more difficult to have a society that supports that, in my view.

INSKEEP: How does that relate to the immigration debate?

GOMEZ: It relates because a lot of these immigrants identify themselves with those values. That's what they want.

INSKEEP: Let me raise one other thing, Archbishop. People in Los Angeles will know that you replaced an Archbishop, whose tenure was overshadowed by scandal, which you have had to deal with in the early years of your time here. How has the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal affected your ability to speak out on other issues like this one?

GOMEZ: Oh, no, it's - obviously, the sex abuse scandal was a tragedy for the Church and our country. And we have always - have tried to support the big things and tell them how horrible that was. And we have an extraordinary program of protection of children in the archdiocese, with more than a million kids that already went through the training program. And also, maybe, 250,000 or so adults that have been trained in order to do all they can to protect children. We are very sorry for everything.

INSKEEP: When I was thinking about the fact you are speaking out on this vital, national issue. And you're speaking on behalf of people you see as needing help and, in fact, specifically speaking on behalf of children who need help. And you must know that some people's minds, when they hear the reference to the Catholic Church today, what they will think of is that scandal. That is part of the national dialogue, at the moment.

GOMEZ: Well I think in the Catholic Church we help people. We have done that for 2000 years. (Laughing) I think we have a good record in that sense. I think people understand we want to do what is best for families and for children.

INSKEEP: Archbishop Jose Gomez who spoke with us at his office in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.