BOSTON -- A seminar held on the Boston College campus March 22 brought together local religious, academic, political, and community leaders to discuss the topics of immigration in the Boston area.
Sponsored by the BC School of Theology and Ministry and the Scalabrini Centers for Migration in Boston, the all-day seminar featured four panel discussions that focused mainly on the role of immigrants in society and were led by migration experts and local leaders.
Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, offering opening remarks of the event, extended gratitude to BC and the Scalabrinians for their continued support of immigrants.
Citing the mass influx of Irish into Boston after the potato famine in the 19th century, and the subsequent steady flow of immigrants following, the cardinal noted that Boston has always been defined by immigration. Today, he said, the city is home to a number of different ethnic communities, all of whom help make up the city, as well as the Church.
"Our Church continues to be a Church of immigrants, and our country is probably the country that has been the most successful in assimilating immigrants," said Cardinal O'Malley.
"We want to make America great," he said, "and what has made America great are our immigrants, who have come here to work."
"The immigrants that have come here often are very poor people, but they have worked so hard and contributed so much to the greatness of this country, and as a Church we must continue to raise our voice in their defense, and work to make our immigrants feel welcome and part of our Church," said the cardinal.
In additional opening remarks, Father Thomas Stegman, dean of the BC School of Theology and Ministry, said the school is "committed to living the gospel by affirming the dignity of every human person, regardless of their country of origin, religion, culture, or race."
"Immigrants make us a better, stronger society. They challenge us to see the world in fresher ways. As Christians, it is our conviction that when we welcome the immigrant, we welcome the Lord Jesus, and when we welcome Christ, we are challenged to be our better selves," Father Stegman said.
Over 100 people attended the free seminar, taking notes during the panelist presentations and engaging the speakers with questions.
While all focusing on best practices and challenges of integration, each panel offered a slightly different perspective on the issue, including national, local, and Catholic perspectives. Speakers included Bela Hovy, chief, Migration Section, United Nations Population Division; Center for Migration Studies Executive Director Donald Kerwin; Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria; General Consuls of Latin American countries in Boston; and administrators of local Scalabrini Centers for Migration, including Sister Elisete Signor, MSCS.
Organizers said that about 90 percent of the seminar's speakers were immigrants themselves.
Largely, the panel discussions touched on the ever-growing local immigrant populations, the immense contributions those populations have made in the workforce, the need for increased pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the need for additional educational and language programs for the integration of migrant populations.
The talks also noted the role the Catholic Church plays in integration, noting that many migrants will seek out their families and a church before anything else when first arriving to a new area. The Church should be able to provide assistance to these people by fulfilling their spiritual needs and, at the very least, pointing them in the right direction, panelists said.
A number of Catholic organizations, including Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston and local Scalabrini Centers, are also able to offer immigrants legal assistance, educational opportunities, and referrals to social services.
In closing remarks, Father Leonir Chiarello, executive director of the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), the umbrella organization of local Scalabrini Centers for Migration, quoted Pope Francis, asking attendees how society can protect, promote, welcome, and integrate migrants.
Summing up the panel discussions, Father Chiarello stressed the need for collaboration between local governments, consulates, and civil society organizations, including the Catholic Church. It is vital, he said, to "change the distorted perception of migrants and refugees" that some have.
"If we don't change the distorted perception of migrants, we cannot build a great country," he said.
Integration of migrants into local society is important, Father Chiarello continued, as is the recognition of the contributions migrants have made in development and social innovation. Migrants are "building businesses, promoting the economy, promoting the culture of the local community," he said.
"We are all human beings, members of a human family," he said. "From our Christian perspective, we know and we believe that God shared our experience as migrant. In Jesus, God put his tent among us."
In Jesus' death and Resurrection, "he revealed to us that all of us are migrants in this world, and our final destination is not in this world, it's in an eternal world."
"From this perspective, when we are defining ourselves as migrants, we are defining ourselves as brothers in Christ," continued Father Chiarello. "But, we are adding an adjective to us; our common ground is our humanity."
"Public policies should be focused on humanity, not on adjectives," he said. "Public policies for children, women, sick, elderly people, migrants should be focused not on national interests, personal interests, political interests, but in our common ground as human beings."