"It was easy to cross in those times," said Gomez, now 61, who became a citizen in his mid-40s. "I guess my first impression was that people could live in both countries at the same time."
When he talks about the border, he slips into the Spanish slang of his childhood. He uses migra for U.S. immigration officials and mica for the old-style border-crossing cards he needed to visit his American cousins in Texas.
"I'm an immigrant myself," he said, squinting behind his rimless glasses as he smiles.
Gomez's two-year tenure as the leader of the nation's largest archdiocese has been marked by a decidedly quieter and more cautious style than that of his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was quick to chime in on hot-button issues such as illegal immigration and workers' rights.
But in recent weeks, as debate over the most comprehensive immigration reform bill in a generation reaches a head, Gomez is taking a firm and public stand. He has released a book that touches on his experiences as an immigrant and in an impassioned sermon he affirmed his support for the immigration reform bill, which would create a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal status.
From inside and outside the Catholic Church, Gomez's new public persona is drawing attention. Some who saw Gomez as unwilling to take on issues in the same way Mahony did are now praising Gomez for campaigning on behalf of immigrants. And many church observers see Gomez as trying to use his position as the highest-ranking Latino in the U.S. Catholic Church to effect change on a deeply personal issue.
"I'm glad that he has added his voice to this dialogue," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "When he speaks, people will listen."
But with a topic as complex as immigration, Gomez's stance has also opened him up to criticism. Frank DeMartini, a practicing Catholic who runs a blog called "A Hollywood Republican," said he interpreted the book as something of a scolding for members of the church who don't support a path to citizenship for people who are in the country illegally.
"Instead of taking a political stance on it, he made it seem anti-Catholic," he said.
Yet Gomez seems undeterred.
On a recent Sunday, he celebrated a special Mass in recognition of immigrants at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown. Busloads of people from the dioceses in San Bernardino and Orange attended, as did Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, and Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-East Los Angeles.
In his homily — delivered seamlessly in poetic Spanish and slightly slower English — Gomez reminded the congregants to think of immigration in terms of souls, not statistics.
"We are talking about fathers who, without warning, won't be coming home for dinner tonight," he said.
Then, a student visiting from a parish in the Valley stood before the standing-room-only crowd and shared her story.
Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 6. She worked hard in school, but always knew that without the right immigration documents she probably couldn't attend her dream college. But, in what her mom would later describe as a miracle, she applied for President Barack Obama's "deferred action" and got it. Now, she told the congregation, she has a full-ride scholarship to Harvard for this fall.
Toward the end of the Mass, Gomez made a spirited plea. He asked everyone to contact their congressmen and push them to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"Soon," he said, his voice billowing. "Now. As soon as possible."
In Gomez's new book, "Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation" — 116 pages of historical context, personal anecdotes and calls for grace dedicated to the new pope — the archbishop asks pointed questions.
"Do we really believe that America is one nation under God, made up from every other people?" he wrote. "Or is America instead a nation that is essentially white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, but permits the presence of peoples of other races, colors, and religions?"
Father Allan Figueroa Deck, who teaches theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, said he liked the tone and message of Gomez's book and was happy to hear him speaking up on the topic. As the most powerful Latino in the U.S. Catholic Church, Deck said, anything Gomez says carries an extra weight.
"We're delighted," Deck said. "Much is at stake, and the archbishop is being very proactive in trying to get the message out."
Gomez has also taken steps to minister in his native tongue. Once a month, he records "Dialogo de Fe," a Spanish-language radio and TV show aimed at engaging and growing the Latino Catholic community. And he often visits the parish in Santa Monica where many of the city's Oaxacan immigrants worship.
"I think the big difference is Mahony could speak out of compassion and teaching, and Gomez can speak from being Hispanic himself," said John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
That rings true for Roberto Magana, an immigrant from El Salvador who attends Mass at the cathedral downtown almost every day. It's not uncommon, he said, for the congregation to break into applause on days when Gomez broaches the topic of immigration.
"He's very influential in the way that he's a Spanish-speaking person and a Mexican," Magana said.
As Gomez sits at a long table in the cathedral's conference room, a red crucifix and a photo of fellow clergymen in black robes frame his round face. He sighs, puts his hands together and reflects on a realization he had after moving to the U.S. in the 1980s.
The views of the come-and-go-as-you-please border he knew growing up looked different from this side — a tone shift punctuated by the amnesty law of 1986.
Mexican-Americans told him they often felt rejected and mistreated. During his ministry in San Antonio, he met desperate immigrants who explained that waiting even one week for permission to come to the U.S. meant that their kids would skip meals. And while he worked in the Houston diocese in the early 1990s, a fellow priest told him about how la migra pulled over a van full of people on their way to Mass and deported most of them to Mexico.
Having had all of those experiences — and knowing that many people in the U.S. will never get them — inspired him to write the book, he said.
"I'm trying to ... explain to people so they can understand why they came here without papers and broke the law," he said. "There is a reason for that, and we have to be understanding and compassionate and find a solution."
— By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times (MCT)