A Balanced Approach to the Immigration Debate

Arizona’s recently enacted state immigration law has added fuel to an already volatile national debate. From television to radio, newspapers to magazines, chat rooms to churches, no matter where one turns these days the firestorm of reaction is practically unavoidable.

In the process of weighing the various opinions that have been flying around on the matter, three things stand out. One, a great many commentators — both ecclesial and secular, leftwing and right — trumpet a one-sided view that all but ignores critical details in this multi-faceted issue. Secondly, firmly in place is the ever-present double standard on the part of the media and others; something we’ve come to expect in our political discourse of late, but noteworthy just the same. Lastly and most importantly, Catholic doctrine properly understood and fully acknowledged, along with “the rest of the story,” can lend some much needed balance to the discussion.

ONE-SIDED: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wasted little time in denouncing the Arizona law as “Draconian,” alleging that it “criminalizes undocumented immigrants.”

DOUBLE STANDARD: If you were to sneak onto a commercial airplane bound for another country by cover of darkness — even if you had a very compelling story of hardship as your motive — who in their right mind would insist that you are the victim of criminalization thanks to the law? Who would come to your defense by insisting that you henceforth be referred to not as a “lawbreaker” but as an “undocumented passenger?” If that’s not unrealistic enough, who would chastise the crew on your behalf for daring to verify that you belonged on board in the first place?

BALANCE: It’s never helpful when ecclesial bodies and clerics adopt the lexicon of political activists, and let’s be honest; the “undocumented” label is taken directly from the leftwing playbook. The term most often employed by those on the political right, “illegal alien,” has been deemed too harsh by some for “criminalizing the person as opposed to the act.” OK… this strikes me as an exercise in hairsplitting, but in fairness; Catholics are called to distinguish between the sin and the sinner.

As a compromise, maybe it would be best to consider speaking of “immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.” Wordy for sure (and admittedly a little PC for my taste), but at least this terminology plainly acknowledges the most oft-ignored central fact of the matter; a large group of individuals have willfully broken the law. So let’s not pretend that it’s the state that somehow “criminalizes” an otherwise law abiding citizen. That’s simply untrue.

How refreshing it would be if the bishops of the United States would address the wrongdoing of the lawbreakers every once in a while as well, instead of preaching almost exclusively on how legitimate public authority should enforce, or even ignore, the law.

ONE-SIDED: The USCCB website offers a number of resources under the heading “Justice for Immigrants: Journey of Hope” for those who wish to learn more about the issue; presumably from a Catholic perspective.

You may view them here: http://www.usccb.org/jfi/backgrounders.html

The documents read far more like campaign flyers than materials for catechesis. For example, once again taking its queue from the political playbook, those who are not in favor of summarily granting legal status to everyone who successfully slipped into the country in violation of U.S. law is labeled as an “opponent of immigration.”

This is an example of either ignorance or calumny and it has no place in the debate; much less should it be put forth in the name of the bishops.

If the author of this rhetoric, whether bishop or bureaucrat, is truly so unsophisticated as to not know the difference between legal immigration and sneaking across the border by hook or by crook, then he’s unqualified to air his thoughts on the topic in the name of the Conference. If, however, this person does indeed realize that the vast majority of people who have misgivings about amnesty also fully support legal immigration, yet found it expedient to slap a misleading label on his ideological opponents anyway, then a trip to the confessional is in order.  Either way, it’s a sad commentary.

I won’t parse the documents any further here. Go see for yourself, but be forewarned; if you don’t favor wholesale amnesty, be prepared to see how your money is being used to mock and belittle you.

DOUBLE STANDARD: Among the pro-amnesty talking points to be found on the aforementioned website is this gem: “Many unauthorized immigrants are low-wage employees whose hard work has helped produce more affordable goods for all U.S. consumers. Deporting these workers will lead to labor shortages that will increase the costs of U.S. goods.”

Setting aside the laughable warning of labor shortages in a country with massive unemployment, think about what this statement is really saying: It’s essentially a plea to “forget Catholic social doctrine; think about how much more your groceries will cost!”

The fact is some business owners do indeed take advantage of “immigrants in the U.S. illegally” who have little choice but to work for lower-than-market wages. This is called exploitation, and far from applauding it in support of their favored public policy agenda, the bishops should be denouncing the practice.

The argument being made above is absolutely shameful and it is unbecoming of any institution that bears the name Catholic. If the CEO of a large American manufacturing operation similarly touted the economic benefits of hiring the “unauthorized,” can you even imagine the backlash?

BALANCE: To approach immigration or any other social issue from a Catholic perspective means keeping in mind that rights and duties go together; they are inseparable. In the present case, it is deceptive to focus on the rights of immigrants apart from their duties, and conversely to focus on the duties of the state apart from its rights.

Nations have a right to regulate immigration; yet those in authority also have a duty to pursue the common good (properly understood as a function of human dignity viewed in the light of the objective truth of Divine law) as it relates to both citizens and foreigners alike.

Law enforcement agencies have a right to enforce the law; yet they also have a duty to do so humanely.

Individuals have a right to migrate; yet they also have a duty to obey the laws set forth by legitimate public authority.

You get the point. “Feed my sheep” does not mean teaching cherry picked portions of the Faith while ignoring others in order to justify a public policy opinion. This is just another form of “cafeteria Catholicism.”

ONE-SIDED: Cardinal Roger Mahony weighed in saying, “The Arizona legislature just passed the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law. The tragedy of the law is its totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder, and consume public resources.”

“The law is wrongly assuming that Arizona residents, including local law enforcement personnel, will now shift their total attention to guessing which Latino-looking or foreign-looking person may or may not have proper documents,” he continued.

If you think these comments are over the top, hold on to your rosary — Cardinal Mahony was just getting warmed up!

“I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation,” he said.

DOUBLE STANDARD: Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago on Good Friday that Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa was summarily castigated by liberals the world over for sharing the comments of a Jewish friend (entirely valid comments I might add) who compared the collective guilt being heaped upon the Church in light of the sex abuse scandal to anti-Semitism?

One wonders how Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League, among others, could have possibly missed Cardinal Mahony’s cavalier reference to the perpetrators of the Holocaust? By all appearances the answer is simple; if you stake your turf on the left side of a particular issue there’s no limit to the kinds of calumnies you can invoke against your opponents.

BALANCE: Hyperbole like that offered by Cardinal Mahony only serves to further fuel the partisanship that has helped bring us to this point. This is a far cry from the Council Father’s notion that the Church (and by extension Her shepherds and their national conferences) do not exercise a political mission but rather a religious one that serves as a sort of leaven in society (cf GS 40, 42).

Consider that latter image well. In order to serve as leaven, our shepherds must first “rise above” the rancor of raw political discourse themselves. It would seem that the USCCB in general and Cardinal Mahony in particular have a long way to go in this regard.

As far as I can tell, Arizonans have not, in fact, reasoned that immigrants as a whole — including those who come to the U.S. legally as His Eminence implies — are intent on perpetrating mayhem.

What does appear to be the case is that the citizens of Arizona have grown weary of the fact that their state has become the primary gateway for drugs entering the U.S. from Mexico. They are concerned about the fact that the number of those who live in the state illegally equals the entire population of Cleveland, OH. The hard working and law abiding people of Arizona seem motivated by concern over the escalating incidence of crime that has resulted from this runaway problem. Parents, it seems, are justifiably terrified by the knowledge that Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the U.S. with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City — over 370 cases in 2008 alone. Think about it; that’s more than one kidnapping per day!

These appear to be the sober-minded reasons why a large majority of Arizonans favor the new law. It is unfair, and frankly un-Christian, to ignore the legitimate concerns of so many good people and to label them from afar as “mean-spirited” and “Nazi.” Name calling such as this is downright brattish and juvenile, shockingly so considering the source, and it does as much to undermine the Church’s moral authority as all the lies published in the NY Times combined.

While it’s reasonable to have concerns about the way in which the Arizona law will be enforced, it is irresponsible to instill fear in people by implying that an all out witch hunt is at hand. This ignores the fact that the new statute stipulates that police must first be engaged in “lawful contact” with an individual (meaning there must be a primary cause for engagement; e.g. the breaking of motor vehicle or other laws) before they can make a “reasonable attempt… when practicable” to determine the person’s immigration status, and then only when there is “reasonable suspicion.”

Yes, many questions remain as it relates to what is “reasonable” and what is not, but one thing we know for sure; fear-mongering and name calling doesn’t get us one inch closer to an answer.

The bottom line for Catholics is this; we are called to engage and influence the nation’s immigration policy debate as viewed through the eyes of faith, mindful that human dignity is the centerpiece of the issue, ever aware that innocent children and families are an undeniable part of the equation, with a commitment to seek the common good in a way that extends beyond our own borders. There’s nothing simple about this issue, and people of goodwill can disagree on how best to approach it.

One thing we should all be able to agree on is this; one-sided arguments and double standards do nothing whatsoever to serve the cause justice; in fact, they only serve to undermine it.

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  • fatherjo

    “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.” Blessed Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, no. 25

    “In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized as brothers and sisters. It is the task of the various Dioceses actively to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community. Solidarity means taking responsibility for those in trouble.” Venerable Pope John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day, 1995.

    Both of these quotes were found in “Strangers No Longer, A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States.” http://www.usccb.org/mrs/stranger.shtml

  • Hey Fr. Joe!

    So good to see you. I’m curious, Father… why did you select these particular quotes to share? The fact that you are “Father” complicates things a little for our readers, I’m afraid. Maybe you can help them.

    It may not be immediately clear to some if your post is an attempt to teach the Catholic faith (in which case it is a very good example of the sort of one-sidedness that my article mentions) or if you’re attempting (as it would seem) to imply your personal opinion on the matter. As a service to the reader, it would be helpful to confirm either way.

    “Strangers No Longer” as a joint statement of national conferences attempts to reflect on Church doctrine in support of certain public policy opinions. Readers interested in wading through it can make up their own mind about its catechetical value. The statement at least flirts with balance, saying:

    “The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights. These teachings complement each other.”

    As my article says; Catholic social doctrine strikes a balance between rights and duties as they exist for BOTH the state and the individual in the matter of immigration. We should shy away from neither one, don’t you agree?

  • asquared

    I live on the border where we are caught in the crossfire of the Mexican drug war. Drug traffic is the problem on the border. Focus on the real problem. I have heard deafening silence from the administration and the bishops on the real issue.

  • fatherjo

    Hi Louie! As a Catholic Pastor in Arizona, I see the fear among many of my people over this legislation. As a not uncommon example: a man is here with a work permit (green card), his children, born in America, are American citizens. The only “illegal” is the mother. Following the letter of the law, the woman will be deported, thus breaking up the family. This is going to contribute to social problems, not solve them. Gangs and cartels will be more attractive, especially to young people, than the government. Instead of going after drug runners and human smugglers, police will be hunting women and children, a new class of felons under this law (S.B. 1070), and wasting their time, our money, and making the situation even worse. Surely we can do better. And, Louie, I don’t have time to make this a continuing discussion. I have sheep to tend to.

  • Thanks for taking time out to stop by, Fr. Joe. I’m sorry you didn’t have time to clear things up for our readers. We’ll just have to assume the obvious – your posts are not of a catechetical, but personal nature. If I’ve misunderstood, please do let us know.

    As I wrote, there’s nothing simple about this issue; people of goodwill will disagree on how best to approach it. It is complicated. The scenario you gave of one family member here illegally is a good example.

    By all means tend those sheep, Father, but please consider reading the bill before you scare them unnecessarily. I have good news for you and those in your flock who have entered the U.S. in violation of our laws – police will not, under S.B. 1070, be “hunting women and children.”

  • liturgylover

    Bravo, Louie! I suspect that your article hits the nail on the head for the majority of good, practicing Catholics. I whole-heartedly welcome LEGAL immigrants. However, knowing many folks who have legally come to America, I cannot acquiesce giving wholesale amnesty to ILLEGAL immigrants. Admittedly we badly need immigration reform, but to give the green light to those who sneak in to the US and disrespect those who followed the law is not only unfair, but irresponsible. And if we give amnesty to those here illegally, do we limit it to those from Mexico only? Perhaps it is easier to cross that border illegally, but there are probably people from other countries here illegally too and we don’t even have any idea of the numbers. As a country we have the right as well as the responsibility to control who immigrates into the US and insure legitimate government benefits for those here legally as well as those born here. And btw–isn’t someone who intentionally immigrates illegally a criminal? I thought that’s what breaking the law means. I pray that fatherjo isn’t frightening his sheep unnecessarily.

  • aeyler

    It is only acceptable that persons residing in this country should be expected to obey the law. Why should this only apply to persons residing in the U.S. legally and not those who are here illegally?

    During the year I spent studying in Brazil, I never left home without my passport. Because I looked different than Asian people, I was often asked to provide proof of my citizenship while travelling in Thailand and Vietnam. Was I threatened or offended because I was racially profiled? As American citizens travelling in foreign countries, we wouldn’t dream of wandering about without any documentation. Why should we expect anything different from foreigners in our country?

  • Kathryn

    A couple of questions on the “breaking up the family.”

    1) Why do people decide to marry (assuming they decide to marry–it isn’t a prereq for having babies) and have children with illegal aliens?

    2) Why doesn’t the American citizen (or the “legal alien”) simply move back to “the old country” with the spouce and children? That way the family would NOT be broken up. Problem solved, right?

    There is a lot of reform that needs to be done: immigration is one, drug laws, welfare laws, labor/wage laws, and I am sure there are many, many other areas.

    In answer to #2 above (I have no answer for #1): I’ve heard that Mexico, amoung others, have rather draconian and unfriendly immigration laws, and it is difficult to emigrate there.

    I understand that the US is far from perfect, but if people are going to lash out at how unfair the US immigration policies are, can’t those same people at least acknowledge that foreign countries are a large part of the problem?

  • Andy0

    Thank you for a balanced article, and for personally responding to comments posted. I wish other authors would practice responding to comments on their articles, for topic and clarification sake.

  • goral

    Since when is it the mission of the Church to encourage the breaking of reasonable and just laws?
    Since when is it the place of the Church to criticize authorities who are enforcing reasonable and just laws?
    Is the Church and its buildings and its property not locked and protected at night?
    Are the bishops’ residences open for anyone to walk in at anytime?

    The result of open borders is more crime, more children out of wedlock, more broken families, more distrust in the communities and more disdain for legitimate authorities.
    That can’t be what the Church or anyone in their right mind wants.

  • fatherjo

    Our local police chief called a meeting tonight for the Hispanic community and all those interested in the effects of the new law S.B. 1070 when it is implemented. Someone asked if women and children who were not born here and did not have documentation would be considered criminals, and the chief answered “Yes”.

    Drug cartels have taken over whole towns in Mexico. Deported persons may literally not have a home to return to.

    Here is another quote from Strangers No Longer, the joint statement of the Bishops of the United States and Mexico: “The U.S. legal immigration system places per-country limits on visas for family members of U.S. legal permanent residents from Mexico. This cap, along with processing delays, has resulted in unacceptable waiting times for the legal reunification of a husband and wife, or of a parent and child. For example, the spouse or child of a Mexican-born legal permanent resident can wait approximately eight years to obtain a visa to join loved ones in the United States. Spouses and parents thus face a difficult decision: either honor their moral commitment to family and migrate to the United States without proper documentation, or wait in the system and face indefinite separation from loved ones.” There are also very high attorney fees for those seeking visas.

    For the most part, we are talking about Catholics. Those of us who are Catholic have a special obligation to be charitable to them and all who are in trouble. (See the quote by Venerable Pope John Paul II in my first reply.)

  • fatherjo

    Pope Pius XII wrote an apostolic consitution, “Exsul Familia”, “On the Spiritual Care to Migrants” (1952). “While recognizing the right of the sovereign state to control its borders, ‘Exsul Familia’ also establishes that this right is not absolute, stating that the needs of immigrants must be measured against the needs of the receiving countries.” (“Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”, no. 30)

    “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

  • Good Morning Fatherjo,

    I don’t think anyone would argue against charity and humane treatment of foreigners no matter how they got here, Catholic or not. And your report on the police chief is nice, but we both know that the AZ law does nothing to change the status of people here illegally. Either they are or they’re not according Federal laws that are decades old.

    And please, Father, let’s not pretend “Strangers No Longer” is an authoritative treatise on Catholic doctrine; it’s not. You know that. It is a liberal public policy position paper dressed up in ecclesial language. It is an excellent example of the problem, not the solution. Teach the faith. That’s what we need the bishops and priests to do. Teach the faith, stop playing legislator, exercise the religious mission that Christ has given them, and those who do have a political mission will be better formed to exercise it well.

    The USCCB has spent countless dollars creating left wing campaign materials, immigrtion issues are a prime example, and this is part of the problem.

    BTW – Since I wrote my article, Archbishop Chaput offered some even handed teaching in the Denver Register. He deserves credit.

    If you’re telling your flock the same things you’ve written here, no wonder you see fear among your people – you’ve helped instill it!

    Read the bill. And then go back and tell them you made a mistake when you said “Instead of going after drug runners and human smugglers, police will be hunting women and children, a new class of felons under this law.”

    That said, my article is not about the Arizona law alone; it’s about the importance of teaching the full extent of Catholic doctrine; and you help underscore the validity of my point every time you post.

    Bishops and priests are certainly entitled to their own personal opinions, but none of us – not even you – are entitled to pick and choose specific parts of Catholic doctrine while purposely omitting others in order to support those opinions. Surely you agree, no?

  • fatherjo

    Louie, it’s hard to have a discussion with someone who is, by their own self-description, more “balanced” than even Popes declared Blessed and Venerable.

  • More balanced than the popes? This may come as a surprise to you, Father, but the popes taught exactly as I have written WRT the rights and duties encumbent upon both state and individual in the matter of immigration.

    You are the one who is cherry picking the Church’s teachings, not I. And fair or not, the fact that you are a priest means that we expect more than that of you, in fact, the Church needs more than that from Her ordained.

    Let’s give your posts an honest reading: They are very one-sided, focusing almost entirely on the rights of immigrants while ignoring the duty that they have to follow the laws of the land. This is a problem. You write about the duty of American Catholics to treat immigrants charitably – bravo for that, I agree, but where is your exhortation to these Catholic immigrants to obey the law? Your posts lack the balance of the very papal Magisterium you wish to claim as authority.

    Worse still, you have engaged in fear mongering WRT to the AZ law. This is a major problem. Where is the charity in scaring your flock by telling them they will be hunted?

    If they have fear, it is because they are living here in violation of the law. Period. How would you advise a parishioner who said, “Father, I have cheated on my taxes for the past 10 years and I’m afraid I’ll be caught.” You really want to dialogue? Please, answer this question for me. How would you counsel the tax cheat to deal with his fear of being caught?

  • Gentlemen, let’s back off on the trading of personal accusations. This is an important and complex issue — this is why it needs a Catholic Exchange of ideas.

    Please stick to the issues and deal with the substance of each others posts.

  • Joe DeVet

    I am in agreement with Louis that the bishops of the USCCB have compromised their own credibility by displaying a “preferential option for the left.”

    I also agree that they should be more comprehensive in their commentary on social matters. They seem to be selective in who is favored to receive “social justice.” For example, never is it acknowledged, and Louis hinted at this, that the illegal alien has broken the seventh commandment.

    It is agreed that to accuse the state of breaking up families, when the decisions of the family members themselves to break the law is the proximate cause of the family’s breaking up, is one-sided and “double-standarded.”

    It is certainly agreed that the name-calling and vilification of good people who are interested in defending our borders is out of place in our top leaders.

    It is also very much agreed that the productions of the bishops’ conferences are not exactly always teaching documents for the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, it is too easy for many to put them all in the category of “Catholic teaching” which, as Louis points out, has the perverse tendency to undermine the understanding of authentic doctrine.

    However, it is too simplistic in my opinion to say that bishops and other ordained leaders of the Church should stick to teaching faith and morals. That should be their primary activity, and the principles of the faith should be (comprehensively) cited in all they teach and advocate. But to say or imply that they should not advocate in the public square for just laws is not right. We do expect them to join us (and lead us) in opposing legalized abortion, for example.

    There’s no avoiding the messy and difficult requirement that prudent good judgment must accompany our public pronouncements on the intersection of faith and public policy. I join the author in praising Abp. Chaput as an exemplary voice who, probably more than any other Catholic leader in our country, consistently displays these virtues.

  • cesarsmith75

    I know this is an old article but Fr. Joe is right, the teaching of the church is right to life which includes all even immigrants legal or illegal. Everyone else is trying to gray the issue, we are Catholics not Protestants or Calvinist or Born Again Evangelist. All who have turned there back on the one true Catholic Church. If you agree with the others then you are being a cafeteria Catholic. Again, Jesus Christ set the standard and that is Right to Life. He prayed for Osama Bin Laden, did you? Our faith challenges us to our core, at Jesus’s core is Love for all, for all not just those whom make us feel good inside.