Catholic Bishop Speaks of the Value of New Immigrants

November 18, 2000

Source: The New York Times

On November 18, 2000, the New York Times reported that a "vast wave of new immigrants -- from Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe -- has been altering the face of parishes from coast to coast, a trend that began three decades ago. It is a demographic transformation such as Catholics have not seen since many thousands of Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles and other Europeans poured into the United States a century ago. 'You're increasing by 25 percent the size of the church in one generation,' said Bishop DiMarzio, 56, an articulate, plain-spoken man who presides over the Diocese of Camden, N.J. 'This is a universal phenomenon, happening around the country.' When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops held its fall meeting in Washington this week, he was frequently at the lectern, discussing a pastoral statement prepared by his committee that calls on the church to welcome the new immigrant Catholics...The document, adopted unanimously, also contains stern warnings against 'nativism,' or anti-immigrant bias...People who have worked with Bishop DiMarzio say this broad subject is his passion...But Bishop DiMarzio's interest in immigration issues really dates from his first assignment as a priest. In 1970, his bishop sent him to a Jersey City parish, once a German stronghold, lately a magnet for Italian immigrants. He established a storefront social service center, to help meet the needs of parishioners dealing with government agencies and issues related to work...Eventually, he took a course in immigration law, then obtained a master's degree in social work at Fordham. Later, he entered a doctoral program in social policy at Rutgers, where he wrote a thesis surveying 800 illegal immigrants in metropolitan New York, examining who they were, what they did, how they used social services. In 1985, he became director of migration and refugee services at the Catholic conference, a position he held for six years before returning to Newark as director of Catholic Charities. In 1996, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop there. Last year, the Vatican sent him to Camden...The Camden diocese also incorporates agricultural areas, where farms employ migrant laborers. Last summer, Bishop DiMarzio secured the services of three Mexican priests who had been pursuing graduate studies in Rome to spend the season running a ministry to the farm workers, a group he said was overwhelmingly Mexican and Guatemalan. Many of these men and women are illegal immigrants, and they form a particular concern for the bishop. 'We've got to prick the conscience of this nation,' he said. 'The Department of Labor says half of migrant laborers may be undocumented. Now we use them to bring down the costs of our food, and we don't give them any rights or benefits.' As for his overall view of immigrants and the church, Bishop DiMarzio said: 'New immigrants are like a blood transfusion. They bring new ideas, new fervor.' Echoing the message of the pastoral statement approved by the bishops' conference, he added: 'We need to welcome them and give them a place. They're not a burden, they're a contribution.'"