Immigration reform requires seeing the faces of immigrants, and hearing their stories, according to five U.S. bishops who have completed a two-day pastoral visit to the U.S. border with Mexico in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

The bishops spoke at a press conference Monday night, reflecting on their experiences with immigrants, among them children separated from their parents and held in federal custody, during their pastoral visit.

“Our faith is not just a system of concepts,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, president of the US bishops’ conference, during the July 2 press conference. “Our faith is in a person, the person of Jesus Christ.”

DiNardo told the story of a Honduran man he met during a visit to a Catholic-run respite center for immigrants. The man told the cardinal that he entered the United States illegally in order to protect his family, after receiving death threats from gangs in their home country.  

“He had his son with him,” the cardinal said. “Did he cross the border? He did. That part is illegal. But I am not looking at an abstraction when I look at him. I am looking at a person. And that person is shaken.”

“These are all human beings here,” DiNardo added.

Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pa., affirmed the cardinal’s sentiment. Bambera said that talking with immigrant families reshapes perceptions about illegal immigration, and challenges political preconceptions.

“When you have the opportunity to sit down with a family...labels melt away,” Bambera said.

“When you talk to somebody whose deepest desire is not to exploit a country and take everything they can, but to provide for their children, and keep their children safe, then labels melt away.”

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, vice-president of the bishops conference, told reporters that immigration is “not just a matter of politics. It’s a matter of humanity.”

The immigration discussion, he said, “is really talking about men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters.”

“It’s a global reality...we all are participating in the same humanity and we are together trying to find the solution to this situation,” Gomez added.

The bishops called Catholics to advocate for immigration reform. DiNardo said that call should begin with prayer.
“I certainly think that praying is more sufficient than people even imagine,” DiNardo said.

“Prayer is important. But in addition to prayer, we have to petition Congress. We have to talk to them, we have to make it really intense. Not nasty, but really intense. My hope would be to write, to call, to include Congress, in calling for an integral immigration reform.”

Gomez said that families should be prioritized in legislative efforts.

“If we want something from the administration and from congress, it’s family unity. Because that’s essential for the human person. And we are willing to do whatever we can to help make it happen.”

“The way they came here-we can address the legal requirements of our country to make the decisions that are correct- but with family unity,” he added.

DiNardo was grateful that policies seperating children from their parents at the border have come to an end, but said the bishops “have some concerns about family detention.”

The cardinal called for the use of case-management programs as a “cost-effective alternative” to family detention, and said that Catholic-run charities would be glad to assist the government in case-management initiatives.

Undocumented immigrants waiting legal proceedings “need to be accounted for.” he said.

Through case-management programs, families, many of whom want to find employment quickly, are “able to live with a little more. I call it hope. When you go through this kind of thing, whether you’re a family or an unaccompanied minor, there’s an element of real trauma that happens to you, and you can see it on their faces.”

DiNardo said that he doesn’t believe U.S. officials intend to traumatize immigrants, but said that “case management gives them some chance to breathe, and some hope.”

The delegation of bishops visiting the border, which also included Bishop Robert Brennan, auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre, toured two federal facilities, along with the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

DiNardo said the visit was a prayerful and pastoral visit.

“We have had a full 2 days and they have been a very beautiful 2 days,” DiNardo said.

“Some parts painful, but very beautiful.”

DiNardo praised the hospitality of federal officials and local Church leaders, especially singling out Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, a member of the delegation and its local host, along with Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

"There are lots of challenges here, there are lots of things we found, but we have found is that we have received incredible cooperation at every site we visited,” DiNardo said.

“All of the people who are involved in this were incredibly helpful. I want to make sure everyone knows that,” he added.

DiNardo said that the bishops are especially calling for the reunification of families separated at the border.

“The children who were separated from their parents need to be reunited- that’s already begun, but it’s not finished yet. It must be done, and it’s urgent,” he said.

Gomez reiterated that point.

“I think it is so important that these children be reunited with their parents,” he said. “I think it is important [for the Church] to really help in that process of reunification. To make sure that we are there and to participate as much as possible in that process.”

For his part, Flores emphasized the gravity of situations that motivate Central American to flee to the United States.

“We have spoken to mothers in Guatemala or in Honduras who have told me ‘my son will be killed here, they will shoot him. He’s 16. What am I supposed to do?’”

“Many people would much prefer to stay home if they didn’t feel that their children’s lives were at stake,” he said.  

I don’t think we have gotten the message out how dire it is in certain parts of Central America...and a wider conversation to address the hemispheric situation is part of our responsibility, as a Church and as a nation.”

Gomez, who said that he asked children to pray for his native Mexico’s squad in the World Cup, said that comprehensive immigration reform, addressing the complexity of the situation, is possible.

“What we all need to understand- our government and administration officials- is that it’s possible to address the needs of immigration reform. You just need to make the decision that we can do it. Once we do that, with everyone working together—we can find a solution…that the borders be protected, and that the people who are already here become very productive.”

“There are ways to move people around and respect the border and the laws of every country,” he added.

“Our country is a country of immigrants,” Gomez said. “It’s a great country.”