One can deplore or applaud Arizona’s new get-tough law cracking down on illegal immigrants, but rational debate is not served by Cardinal Mahony’s characterization of the new law as the kind of tactic used by Communists and Nazis. Nor is rational debate served by the Federal government’s head-in-the-sand approach to the problem of illegal immigration. Readers may recall how quickly the question of immigration faded from view during our last presidential campaign. Frankly, nobody knew what to say about it. Or at least nobody knew how to say anything effective that would also be popular.
It is perfectly clear to me that the root issue in illegal immigration is as old as history itself: There is ultimately nothing anybody can do politically to stop mass migrations that are driven by pressures which go way beyond politics. For this reason, it makes far more sense to seek ways to creatively work with the situation and harness the human energies it produces. The alternative of trying desperately to preserve whatever makes us most comfortable is unrealistic, especially in a country whose birth rate has just fallen beneath the replacement level, and which needs huge amounts of immigrant labor as much as the immigrants themselves need jobs. I refer again to factors “way beyond politics” which drive mass migrations.
At the same time, it is an extremely important fact on the ground that places like Arizona bear the brunt of the problems which illegal immigration causes. Arizona is the number one location for illegal crossing of the Mexican border and the extensive drug-running and crime that go along with it. Arizonans have a right to be concerned, and to look for solutions. One proponent of the new law, state representative Russell Pearce, made it clear what he hopes to get out of it: “We’ll have less crime. We’ll have lower taxes. We’ll have safer neighborhoods. We’ll have shorter lines in the emergency rooms. We’ll have smaller classrooms.” Every item on the Pearce list may not, under the circumstances, be morally desirable, but one would have to be blind not to see the attraction.
The new law makes it a crime to be in the country illegally (nothing new there, of course). It also requires local police officers, in the course of addressing other legal violations (such as traffic violations), to question those involved about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants; it allows lawsuits against government agencies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws; and it makes it illegal to hire illegal immigrants for day labor or knowingly transport them. It does not, as Cardinal Mahony claimed, require citizens to report illegals.
But there is certainly a legitimate concern that the only way police will be able to enforce this law is frequently to stop and question—in a word, harass—Hispanics, including those who are in the country legally, and including citizens. Racial profiling of some sort can hardly be avoided. How this will work out remains to be seen, but it has many of those worried who share common appearance traits with the majority of illegals. Of course, a certain amount of inconvenience to a whole lot of people will inevitably go along with any effort to try to stabilize our immigration problem. There are no easy solutions.
But Communists and Nazis? They were hardly hated, feared and morally culpable because they tried to keep illegal aliens out of their countries, or because they frequently questioned people to that end. They were hated, feared and morally culpable because they built totalitarian states atop warped ideologies, and persecuted or killed everybody who didn’t fit their ideological molds. It says much about Roger Cardinal Mahony’s regard for truth that he thinks this a fair description of the citizens of Arizona, who have many good reasons—even if they also have some selfish ones—for wanting to bring some order out of the current chaos.
President Obama can express alarm (as President Obama has dutifully done), but he can’t claim to have yet presented a reasonable alternative. The government of Mexico can denounce this law as adversely affecting relations on both sides of the border (as the government of Mexico has strategically done), but it can’t claim to have made a significant effort to induce its own people to try to build better lives at home. Catholic bishops can seize the moral high ground (as Catholic bishops have piously done), but they can’t offer a sketch, let alone a blueprint, showing how to make the situation more manageable. And the citizens of Arizona, whether for or against the new law, may believe that something important has been accomplished here (as the citizens of Arizona on all sides vehemently do), but they are going to find that denial will not solve the immigration problem. It will simply change the pressure points.
Once again, mass migrations cannot be stopped without alleviating the pressures which drive them. Americans are apparently incapable of addressing their desire for continued economic growth by producing a large new generation of their own, or their desire for a secure and comfortable life without resorting to high taxes and massive social programs. Paradoxically, this is a better recipe for bankruptcy without immigration than with it. Meanwhile, the governments of Mexico and quite a number of other countries are apparently unwilling to address the needs of their own citizens through economic reform. So I advise everyone in the United States to prepare to get serious about the changes required by massive immigration. We can’t stop it, but we may be able to improve substantially on how it works.
Now I hasten to admit that I, like almost everybody thus far, do not know enough to offer concrete proposals. But I do know one thing very well. Ultimately we will have to recognize that we’re all in this together. Indeed, that’s how real Catholics always think. Therefore, we need to face the consequences of massive immigration in exactly the same way we are called to face everything else in life: Not with an unseeing defense of the status quo, but with work, creativity, intelligence, realism, love and prayer. Read the list backwards to succeed.