A book review of: Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation by Victor Narro

What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and where are we heading as a country? What will the “next America” look like? What should the next America look like? These are the questions at the heart of this Archbishop José H. Gomez’s book, Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation.

During his successful 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump tapped into the anxiety and fear of millions of voters with language that scapegoated immigrants and refugees. And early on in his presidency, we are witnessing a sharp increase in the numbers of deportations and separations of families. We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. This is why Archbishop Gomez’s book is so timely and necessary.

Following in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and other civil rights and spiritual leaders, Archbishop Gomez returns the immigration debate to a discussion of the ideals of the American Creed, which was based on religion and spirituality. Archbishop Gomez points out that right now, anger is driving the debate about what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. He argues that by default, we have made deportation the de facto mandatory sentence for anyone caught without proper documentation. He wonders about much we really know about the immigrants we consider so threatening to our security and way of life. Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that everybody likes to talk about the poor, but very few people talk to the poor. Archbishop Gomez writes that the same is true with undocumented immigrants.

Archbishop Gomez touches on an important factor in the immigration debate today – the fear and apprehension of the changing demographics in our country. He discusses how in the immigration debate, demographics become a source of deep apprehension. As Archbishop Gomez points out so vividly, many in this country are fearful and uncertain about the growing presence of neighbors who do not look like us, who speak different languages, and who have different traditions and countries of origin. This is after all the heart of the immigration debate. We must address this fear and apprehension through dialogue of compassion and understanding.

Throughout his book, Archbishop Gomez provides us with historical perspectives that teach us that while America has been welcoming of immigrants, we have also been a nation that at times throughout its history has been bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and even religious lines. Archbishop Gomez stresses that in order to fully engage in the immigration debate with our neighbors, we must reflect on and never forget the moments of darkness in America’s history. We must transform the immigration debate from the polarized climate of today to one where we address the larger question of “what is an American?” We need to engage in the idea of what this country is meant to be, and what it means to belong to this country. Archbishop Gomez challenges us to take a hard look at our attitudes about race and our assumptions about what it means to be an American. He points out that throughout history, in times of fear and uncertainty, we have often abandoned our commitment to liberty and justice for all in favor of an insular, racial defining of who can be a true American.

In his book, Archbishop Gomez challenges us to be honest with ourselves. We must acknowledge that there have been times in our history when we have succumbed to our fears and have let it lead us down a path of dehumanizing groups of persons who we viewed as deserving of less dignity and rights for the common good. Archbishop Gomez tells us that we cannot let this become one of those times. Our task today is to confront our fears and resist the temptations to narrow the horizons of who can be an American. After all, what unites us all should be our beautiful diversity of cultures and shared vision of the dignity of the human person.

As an immigrant rights activist for over 30 years and a spiritualist deeply rooted in the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, this book provides me with the wisdom and encouragement that will enable my spirituality to guide me in the long struggle for humane immigration reform. I agree with Archbishop Gomez that immigration is the human rights test of our generation. We are in a defining history moment for America. The path that we take to address the immigration issue will determine the humanity and spirituality of the new America.

Victor Narro is Project Director for the UCLA Labor Center and Lecturer in Law for UCLA Law School. He is the author of Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice (Create Space Publication, 2014) and its Spanish translation, Paz en Acción Conecta tu Espiritualidad con tu Trabajo por la Justicia Social (2015).