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L.A.'s Latino archbishop now holds a top position among U.S. Catholics. Some think that’s a shot at Trump

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez gives Jersey Vargas, 10, a high-five in support of her trip to the Vatican in 2014, where she hoped to get an audience with Pope Francis to try to prevent her father from being deported to Mexico.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez — a native of Mexico, an American citizen and a supporter of immigration reform — was elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday.

The first Latino to hold the position, he will begin his three-year term just eight days after the country elected Donald Trump as president. Trump has vowed to deport millions of immigrants who are here illegally and made the construction of a border wall a centerpiece of his campaign.

 In a phone interview from Baltimore, where the bishops assembled, Gomez said he was surprised by the results but “grateful to my brother bishops for their trust in me.”

He dismissed the notion that his selection had anything to do with Trump, saying it was about the “challenge in our country to address the broken immigration system.” In elevating him to vice president, Gomez said, the bishops were acknowledging the “importance of Los Angeles in our country and the importance of Latinos in our country.”

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“The diversity in Los Angeles is becoming the norm,” he said. “Being in the leadership gives me the opportunity to share … what we do in Los Angeles and how we make a difference.”  

California and Trump are on a collision course over immigrants here illegally »

Observers of the Catholic Church called Gomez an excellent choice for the post, praising his leadership abilities and his big heart. But some could not totally separate his appointment from last week’s election results. 

Alejandro Bermúdez, executive director of the Catholic News Agency, said the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traditionally is chosen with the expectation that he will become its next leader. In fact, Gomez’s predecessor, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, was elevated to president Tuesday. 

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So in three years, Bermúdez said, Gomez is likely to become the group’s first Latino president. 

Although immigration is not the only issue important to U.S. bishops, Bermúdez said that selecting Gomez sends “a powerful message. … it’s impossible not to see a connection.”

Gomez said Tuesday that the church’s focus on justice for immigrants was “nothing new” in an increasingly Latino church. He noted that President Obama had deported more than 2 million people during the last eight years.

A spokeswoman for the L.A. Archdiocese said Gomez’s position “has always been to keep families together.” At a post-presidential election prayer service at Los Angeles’ downtown cathedral, Gomez said: “Our brothers and sisters who are undocumented — we will never leave you alone. 

“In the past couple days since the election, we have children in our schools who are scared. They think the government is going to come and deport their parents any day now,” the archbishop said. “This should not be happening in America. We are not this kind of people. We are better than this.”

Inés San Martín, an Argentinean journalist who covers the Vatican for the Catholic media outlet Crux, said it appeared that the U.S. bishops’ selection of Gomez was inspired by Pope Francis’ stance on immigration: They wanted a leader in America who too could provide credibility on the topic.

Choosing Gomez, “sends a signal that, on this issue, we’re united and we’ll be watching carefully,” San Martín said. 

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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Twitter: @ByMattStevens

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UPDATES:

5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction Gomez, experts and observers of the Catholic Church. 

This article was originally published at 12:30 p.m.

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