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Finding a Catholic solution to Immigration

Mark Gordon - published on 02/20/13

The Church calls for both the rule of law and a just treatment of immigrants

The issue of immigration reform continues to vex American policymakers despite nearly unanimous agreement on the source and scale of the problem. Though the numbers oscillate, it is generally acknowledged that some 11 million persons are living in the United States illegally. The majority of those persons – 6.5 million – come from Mexico, while another 1.5 million hail from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In a nation of 313 million people, that means that up to 3.5% of residents are here without documentation.

The causes of illegal immigration are numerous and interwoven. Geographically, the United States and Mexico share the longest contiguous border between First and Third World nations anywhere on the globe. The 2,000 miles that stretch from San Diego, Calif., to Brownsville, Tex., are forbidding and difficult to monitor, much less police. Culturally, the American Southwest has a long history of engagement with our neighbor to the south. In fact, much of the region was once Mexican territory, and it continues to be enriched by tens of millions of Mexican-Americans who populate states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Economically, the relatively vibrant and growing American economy has long acted as a magnet for Mexican and Central American workers hoping for a better life for themselves and their families. In a similar way, the stability of the American political system, including its respect for due process and the rule of law, has been attractive to Mexican and Central American citizens wearied by the brutality and corruption of their leaders.

Last weekend, details of a soon-to-be-proposed law aimed at reforming the American immigration system were leaked from within the Obama Administration. The measures would include an eight-year waiting period before those here illegally could apply for permanent resident status, symbolized by the famous “green card.” Once granted that status, those persons would have to go to the back of the line of applicants for citizenship, demonstrate a level of proficiency in English and a basic knowledge of American civics, and pay any outstanding fines or taxes. There would be a quicker track for persons who were brought to the United States as children, and those with a history of serious legal trouble would not be eligible. The leaked proposals also include money to improve border security and streamline the current legal immigration system.

Almost immediately, Republicans in Congress denounced both the leak and the plan’s details. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the GOP point person on immigration, said the plan was “half-baked and seriously flawed,” noting that “if actually proposed, the president's bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a leader of the Tea Party caucus, focused on the fact that details had been leaked at the very time when Republican and Democratic leaders – the so-called “Gang of Eight” – are negotiating a compromise bill of their own. “This is the president torpedoing his own plan,” said Paul. “It shows me that he’s really not serious.” For its part, the Obama Administration disavowed the leaks through spokesmen, claiming that its support for a negotiated compromise on Capitol Hill had not wavered.

As a general rule, Republicans focus on two key issues in the immigration debate: border security and the rule of law, particularly procedural justice for those who apply for entry and citizenship through legal channels. Democrats, while conceding that border security and procedural equity are important, tend to concentrate their proposed solutions on fairness to those workers and families who are already here, including the creation of a “path to citizenship.” The term “comprehensive immigration reform,” which is embraced to one degree or another by both parties, is intended to include both perspectives in legislation aimed at concrete, systemic reform of the system. When attempts at immigration reform fail, as it did in 2007 when President George W. Bush proposed sweeping changes in immigration law, it is typically because one side or the other perceives that its priorities are being ignored or shortchanged.

For Catholics, this is a critical issue, one that the Church at every level has been addressing for years. The bishops of the United States have long identified seven key themes in Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and the issue of illegal immigration is directly implicated in six of them:

  • The Life and Dignity of the Human Person (“We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”)
  • The Call to Family, Community and Participation (“The person is not only sacred but also social. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined.”)
  • Rights and Responsibilities (“… every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities–to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.”)
  • Option for the Poor and Vulnerable (“A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring.”)
  • The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers (“The economy must serve people, not the other way around.”)
  •  Solidarity (“We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers and sisters keepers, wherever they may be.”)

The immigration debate is further illuminated by such distinctively Catholic concepts as the common good, the universal destination of goods, and subsidiarity.

Pope Benedict XVI touched on many of these ways of applying CST to immigration during a statement honoring “World Day of Migrants and Refugees” on September 27, 2010. He began by highlighting the “profound link between all human beings,” and quoted the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that “All peoples are one community and have one origin, because God caused the whole human race to dwell on the face of the earth; they also have one final end: God.” The Holy Father went on to declare that “all, therefore, belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them, and all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the earth whose destination is universal, as the social doctrine of the Church teaches.”

Turning specifically to immigration, Benedict then quoted his predecessor, Bl. John Paul II, who once said “[the universal common good] includes the whole family of peoples, beyond every nationalistic egoism. The right to emigrate must be considered in this context. The Church recognizes this right in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave one’s country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better conditions of life.”

The Holy Father acknowledged the responsibility of governments to secure their borders and enforce the rule of law: “At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity.” Having acknowledged the importance of the rule of law, Benedict then quoted Pope John Paul II again, writing, "The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life"

This search for the balance between justice and mercy, between the rule of law and the law of love, permeates Catholic Social Teaching on the subject of immigration, including the paragraphs of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that address the subject. Paragraph 298, for instance, says, “Regulating immigration according to criteria of equity and balance is one of the indispensable conditions for ensuring that immigrants are integrated into society with the guarantees required by recognition of their human dignity. Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life.”

The American bishops have of course been on the front lines in promoting both the rule of law and the just treatment of immigrants, legal or not. The Catholic Church in the United States has its origin in and has always drawn its strength from immigrant communities, and today the American bishops are responsible for providing both pastoral and social services – including education and healthcare – to immigrant communities. As a result, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has long taken a firm stand in favor of immigration reform measures that honor the dignity of immigrants and their families while still supporting the principle that government has a legitimate duty to enforce the law in pursuit of the common good.  In late 2000, the bishops published a pastoral letter titled, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” which established the broad themes of their approach to immigration. Then, in 2003, the US bishops, along with their Mexican counterparts, published a joint pastoral statement titled “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” The document, approved by bishops responsible for a combined 155 million Catholics – over ten percent of the universal Church – is addressed to “the peoples of the United States and Mexico, and notes that “our two nations are more interdependent than ever before in our history, sharing cultural and social values, common interests, and hopes for the future. Our nations,” write the bishops, “have a singular opportunity to act as true neighbors and to work together to build a more just and generous immigration system.”

The “Strangers No Longer” framework rests on six criteria that provide for a just, sustainable, and comprehensive reform of the immigration system.  Those criteria are a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in this country (the bishops call it “earned legalization”); a guest worker program that would allow “foreign-born workers to enter the country safely and legally,” as well as help reduce the trafficking of people across the desert; family-based reform that would reduce the time it takes to reunify families under the legal system; the restoration of due process rights for illegal immigrants, including the arbitrary three and ten-year bars to reentry; measures to address the root causes of migration, namely the lack of sustainable economic development; and enforcement, especially when it’s focused on drug smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists, and so long as it is targeted, proportional, and humane. In 2011, the USCCB reconfirmed these criteria in a statement on comprehensive immigration reform.

Perhaps no bishop has a more keen interest in immigration reform than Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. He is himself an immigrant – a native of Monterrey, Mexico – and oversees an archdiocese that is over 70% Hispanic and home to an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants. Given his unique qualifications, Archbishop Gomez is rapidly becoming the USCCB’s point man on the issue. He has recently praised the bipartisan Senate effort to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill (the same effort that Senate Republicans claim the Obama Administration undermined with last weekend’s leaks), saying that such a bill can “protect human dignity and the homeland at the same time.”

Perhaps Archbishop Gomez’s most expansive comments on the issue can be found in an address he gave to the national convention of the Knights of Columbus in August, 2011, just a few months after he succeeded Roger Cardinal Mahoney as Archbishop of Los Angeles. In his remarks, Gomez acknowledged “this issue is hard for people – including many people who are trying to be good Catholics.” He identified the inherent tension between the values of compassion and the rule of law, and asked, “How can we find a way to accept these newcomers and balance that with the need for our nation to protect our borders, to control the flow of immigrants, and to keep track of who is living within our borders?” While conceding that as a legal immigrant and citizen, he doesn’t like to see “our American rule of law flouted,” he also said that our responsibility is “to approach these political issues – not as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives – but as Catholics.”

Near the end of his speech, Archbishop Gomez introduced the example and teaching of Our Lord into the debate. “For Christians,” he said, “empathy means seeing Jesus Christ in every person and especially in the poor and the vulnerable. And we need to remember, my friends: Jesus was uncompromising on this point. In the evening of our lives, he told us, our love for God will be judged by our love for him in the person of the least among us. This includes, he said, the immigrant or the stranger.”


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