The Immigration Debate: A Catholic Perspective

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Ancilla College lecture

October 2, 2012

Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening here at Ancilla College. We are a little over a month away from Election Day and the news is filled with election coverage. Tomorrow evening is the first presidential debate. Many are talking about the upcoming election. In the midst of all the discussion, debate, and commentary, the Church continues to emphasize the importance of voting. The Church tries to contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue and asks Catholics to shape their choices in the coming election in the light of Catholic teaching. We bishops see our role as helping our people to form their consciences. Catholic teaching on the role of faith and conscience in political life is explained in our teaching document entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, issued in 2007 and reissued this past year with a new Introductory Note. In that Note, we highlight six pressing national issues at this time, including the issue I will speak about this evening, immigration. We are careful to point out that some issues involve opposition to intrinsic evils that must always be opposed, as in abortion and euthanasia, which have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (FC 22). We also state that the right to life implies and is linked to other human rights. The issue of immigration also involves human life and dignity, though it is not morally equivalent to the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life. Our grave concern about the preeminent threats to human life and dignity does not mean that we should dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity, “other serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act.”

So this evening I will speak about the issue of immigration. Here is what the bishops point out in the Introductory Note of our document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “The failure to repair a broken immigration system with comprehensive measures that promote true respect for law, protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees, recognize their contributions to our nation, keep families together, and advance the common good.”

Before looking at some particulars concerning the immigration debate in our nation today, I would like to present as context a summary of Church teaching on this issue. The Catholic Church, which is universal, has a large body of teaching in this area, as it approaches the immigration issue with an international perspective and with principles of social teaching founded in natural law and illumined by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Migration is a major theme in the Scriptures. There are numerous passages relevant to this issue, too many for me to cite them all. The most famous Old Testament story relevant to this issue is, of course, the Exodus. Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, and for forty years they lived as migrants, with no homeland of their own. From this migrant experience, the people of God learned a deep appreciation for the plight of strangers and aliens, people they believed they were called to welcome and to whom they owed hospitality. Thus we hear God’s precepts about care of aliens and strangers throughout the Old Testament. In the book of Exodus, God says: “You shall not oppress an alien; you will know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). In the book of Leviticus, similarly God commands: “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you. Have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). Care for the stranger and justice for the alien are recurring themes in the Old Testament, reflections of the great commandment to love one’s neighbor.

When one looks at the New Testament, the Holy Family itself fleeing into Egypt becomes, in the words of Pope Pius XII, “the archetype of every refugee family” (“Exsul Familia”, 1952). Many Christian refugees and migrants through the centuries identify with, and receive hope and courage from, the example of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, forced to flee into Egypt.

Perhaps the most direct instruction for us comes from the words of Jesus in the parable of the Last Judgment: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In welcoming the immigrant, as in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked, in doing these things to the least of our brothers and sisters, we are doing them to Jesus (Mt 25). In turning them away, we are turning away Jesus and are, in the end, condemned. For me personally, these words of Jesus are the most powerful motivation for the Church’s pastoral concern for migrants and refugees. Of course, there are other Scripture passages, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, that provide us with inspiration. There is no doubt from the teaching of Scripture that we have a Christian responsibility to “welcome the stranger among us.”

The Church has recognized and responded to this call to welcome and care for migrants throughout the centuries. Catholic teaching has a long history in defending the right to migrate. In his apostolic constitution Exsul Familia, Pope Pius XII (in 1952) affirmed that all persons have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, the right to migrate. In this same document, Pius XII also recognized the right of the sovereign state to control its borders. But what happens when these two rights clash? Pius XII gives us a solution and I quote: “Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public welfare, considered very carefully, does not forbid this (EF #51). Pope John XXIII continued in this line of teaching. In his great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, he wrote about the right to migrate as well as the right not to migrate. I quote: “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” (#25).

Pope John Paul II reiterated this basic teaching in an address to the New World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Immigrants in1985: “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, worldwide fellowship of men.”

This whole idea of the right to migrate, when there are just reasons, seems rather foreign to the immigration debate in our nation. I think that in the United States recently we find what Pius XII called “the exaggeration of the sovereignty of the state.” We have to keep in mind here the very basic principle of Catholic social doctrine that “all the goods of the earth belong to all people” (the principle of the universal destination of goods). We believe that if people cannot find work to support themselves and their families in their own countries, they have a right to go elsewhere for work in order to survive. Correspondingly, nations have the duty to accommodate this right. The right to find work so one can provide food and shelter for oneself and one’s family is necessary for human life and dignity. In this perspective, the Church views migration issues. How to balance this with the right of sovereign nations to control their borders, a right also recognized by the Church, is a challenging one. But the Church calls upon nations, especially those more economically prosperous, to be generous in receiving migrants who seek to find work to support themselves and their families. Also, migration becomes a right when one’s life or safety is endangered by oppression and persecution for political, religious, or other reasons.

In sum, the Church teaches that people have the right to migrate to sustain themselves and their families when they are unable to achieve a life of dignity in their own land. At the same time, the Church teaches that nations have the right to control their own borders and to regulate immigration. But this latter right is not absolute. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (#2241). It is important that countries, in regulating their borders, exercise justice and mercy and seek the common good above mere national self-interest.

With this background, we can better understand and consider the position of the United States’ bishops on immigration reform in our nation.

We can see why the Catholic Church advocates a more just and a more generous immigration policy. We are concerned above all for those who seek to immigrate because of dire economic conditions, or because of oppression and danger, in their own countries. Regarding the latter, we are talking mainly about people seeking asylum, often for political or religious reasons. Regarding the former, we are talking about severe poverty and unemployment in home countries. Some might say that the solution should really be addressing the problems in those countries which are at the root of the desire for so many to immigrate. That is indeed true. The root problem is often poverty, for example, in Mexico and Central America. The Church in the United States also has a campaign against global poverty and that is the only long-term solution to the immigration challenge. The poverty that generates migration requires an urgent solution. Pope Benedict XVI, in an interview during his flight to the United States in 2008, spoke about the need for long-term solutions. He said: “The fundamental solution is that there should no longer be any need to emigrate because there are sufficient jobs in the homeland, a self-sufficient social fabric, so that there is no longer any need to emigrate. Therefore, we must all work to achieve this goal and for a social development that makes it possible to offer citizens work and a future in their homeland.”

In the short-term, we are faced with a very difficult situation. In our opinion, the current U.S. immigration system is broken and needs to be reformed comprehensively. This would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented in our country; a temporary worker program to allow migrant workers to enter safely and humanely; and family-based immigration reform which allows families to be reunited more quickly.

To be honest, the Church’s position on immigration is not very popular among many in our country today. We have seen in recent years increasingly restrictive immigration laws and policies, especially on the state level.

Let me begin with our support for expanded opportunities for legal immigration. In a joint pastoral letter with the Bishops of Mexico issued in 2003, the United States and Mexican bishops called for reform of our employment-based immigration system to feature both permanent and, with appropriate protections, temporary visa programs for laborers. We advocate for the creation of a certain number of work visas to allow laborers to enter the United States as legal permanent residents, especially considering family ties and work history in the United States in allocating these visas. We also support a guest worker program, as long as there are adequate worker protections and just wages and benefits. This would help reduce the number of undocumented migrants. It would also lessen the demand for the services of unscrupulous smugglers. Such a program would better enable our country to monitor who enters.

“Today’s unauthorized immigrants are largely low-skilled workers who come to the United States for work to support their families. Over the past several decades, the demand by U.S. businesses, large and small, for low-skilled workers has grown exponentially, while the supply of available workers for low-skilled jobs has diminished. Yet, there are only 5,000 green cards available annually for low-skilled workers to enter the United States lawfully to reside and work. The only alternative to this is a temporary work visa through the H-2A (seasonal agricultural) or H2B (seasonal non-agricultural) visa programs which provide temporary status to low-skilled workers seeking to enter the country lawfully. While H-2A visa are not numerically capped, the requirements are onerous. H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 annually. Both only provide temporary status to work for a U.S. employer for one year. At their current numbers, these are woefully insufficient to provide legal means for the foreign-born to enter the United States to live and work, and thereby meet our demand for foreign-born labor.

In light of all of this, many unauthorized consider the prospect of being apprehended for crossing illegally into the United States a necessary risk (living often in severe poverty and unable to meet the basic needs of their families). Even after being arrested and deported, reports indicate that many immigrants attempt to re-enter the U.S. once again in the hope of bettering their lives.

Adding to this very human dilemma is the potentially dangerous nature of crossing the Southern border. Smugglers looking to take advange of would-be immigrants extort them for exorbitant sums of money and then transport them to the U.S. under perilous conditions. Other immigrants have opted to access the U.S. by crossing through the Southwest’s treacherous deserts. As a result, thousands of migrants have tragically perished in such attempts from heat exposure, dehydration, and drowning.” (Migration and Refugee Services, January 2011).

Some oppose our advocacy for more visas allowing workers to enter the U.S. legally because they believe that this will hurt employment opportunities for Americans as well as hurt the wages of our U.S. workers. But the truth is that immigrant workers generally do not compete with U.S. workers for unskilled jobs. Immigrant workers fill crucial jobs in important industries that many Americans will not do, such as agriculture. Immigrants tend to complement the native workforce, rather than compete with it. And, in reality, studies show that immigrant workers boost the wages of 90 % of native U.S. workers. It should not be forgotten that immigrants also contribute to the Social Security system in our country. Unauthorized immigrants provide a net gain of $7 billion to the Social Security system each year. One myth that many accept is that immigrants don’t pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes. Between 50-75% of undocumented immigrants pay federal, state and local taxes. They also contribute to Medicare. Tax revenues generated by immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, exceed the costs of the services they use. The immigrant community in the United States is not a drain on the U.S. economy, but a net benefit to the economy.

One of the greatest areas of concern for us bishops is family unity. This concern was also mentioned by Pope Benedict in that interview on the flight to the United States in 2008 when he mentioned the serious problem of the break-up of families. Many cross the border into the United States, often illegally, in order to join family members here. The United States system places per-country limits on visas for family members of United States legal permanent residents from Mexico. Some wait many years to become legally reunified, even husband and wife, parent and child. Here we believe that reform is desperately needed, for the sake of the good of marriage and family. The bishops state: “A new framework must be established that will give Mexican families more opportunities to legally reunite with their loved ones in the United States. This would help alleviate the long waiting times and, in time, would reduce undocumented migration between the United States and Mexico.” This area of indefinite family separation is one of our gravest pastoral concerns. We believe that family reunification must be included as an essential component in any truly comprehensive reform of immigration policy. Immigration laws, policies, and actions should preserve and protect family unity. Changes in family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.

Now I would like to address the most controversial issue in the immigration debate: What to do about the estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Some came here illegally. Others (40%) came here legally but overstayed temporary visas. Others arrived here as young children and grew up in the United States.

In the pastoral letter Strangers No Longer, the United States and Mexican bishops state the following: “A broad legalization program of the undocumented would benefit not only the migrants but also both nations. Making legal the large number of undocumented workers from many nations who are in the United States would help to stabilize the labor market in the United States, to preserve family unity, and to improve the standard of living in immigrant communities. Moreover, migrant workers, many of whom have established roots in their communities, will continue to contribute to the United States economy” (#69).

As you know, this position is not widely popular in the United States today. The United States bishops believe that the undocumented, who have worked in the United States economy and have otherwise abided by the law, should be given the opportunity to obtain permanent legal status through an “earned” legalization program that would require the applicant to undergo screenings and reviews and otherwise demonstrate eligibility. Such a program would create an eventual path to citizenship, requiring applicants to complete and pass background checks, pay a fine, and establish eligibility for resident status to participate in the program. Such a program we believe, would help stabilize the workforce, promote family unity, and bring a large population “out of the shadows,” as members of their communities.

Many people, however, reject this position and believe that immigration reform should be primarily or exclusively about enforcement of present immigration law. Opponents of “earned legalization” often argue that since the undocumented broke the law, they should not be rewarded by allowing them to stay. They are sometimes branded as “criminals”. It is important to note here that they have not broken a criminal law, rather a civil law, so they should not be called criminals. Yet, they have violated civil law, something the Church does not condone since we do support the rule of law. Yet, we also see deeper and more complex issues here. We question the justice of our current immigration laws. We believe they are outdated and inadequate and need to be changed. It is important to ask why illegal immigrants entered the United States. Largely, the reason is to survive and find jobs. Their intent is not to harm the United States, but simply to work. By doing so, studies show they do indeed help our country and the economy. At the same time, they need to hide in the shadows and do not enjoy basic protections.

I think one of the stronger arguments against the Church’s position is that there are many who observe our laws and are waiting years to come to the United States legally. An argument is made that providing legal status to undocumented immigrants will penalize immigrants who play by the rules and wait in line. It is important to note that the United States bishops’ proposal requires that undocumented workers work six years before applying for permanent residence status. This places them “at the back of the line,” behind immigrants who have petitioned for a green card through an employment-based or family-based petition. Also, many of the undocumented who are here were on waiting lists. They entered our country illegally because of the long backlogs for family visas and other employment-related visas. I am not condoning their entering our country illegally. The large majority of those unauthorized in the country today would have preferred to enter lawfully if they could have. In fact, some 98% say so in surveys. Why did they not just stand in line to do so. For most of them, there was no such line to stand in. Most current unauthorized immigrants residing in the U.S. were not eliglible to enter legally with a “green card” as lawful permanent residents, because they don’t have the required family relationship, aren’t refugees, and most do not hold the advanced degrees nor work in high-skilled professions that would qualify them for lawful permanent residency.

I would like to say a word about the Dream Act, which we bishops support. As you probably know, this act offers high school graduates a future through education or military service. These are young people who were brought to this country unlawfully through no fault of their own, since they came with their parents. Despite achieving their high school diploma, they have no option. There are many young people right here in our diocese who are in this situation. Legally, they cannot get a job. They cannot join the military. They have to pay out-of-state tuition rates to attend a college in Indiana (a new law that went into effect last year) and they are not eligible for federal financial aid. As far as I know, there are only three states that do not allow undocumented students to apply to public colleges or universities (South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). But across the U.S., if the parents of these young people are here illegally and they arrived with them, they have no mechanism to adjust to legal status even if they have spent most of their young lives in the United States. These young people had no willful intent to break the law when they entered the country. There are about one million of these young immigrants who would benefit from the Dream Act. We believe that the Dream Act is a component of the needed broad immigration reform. Though it has had much bipartisan support, it was not enough to pass in Congress. This past June, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will offer deferred action on a case-by-case basis to youth who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and meet certain criteria. These youth will receive deferred action, in other words, will be allowed to remain in the U.S. temporarily with legal status, and to apply for work authorization. Deferred action does not provide a path to permanent residence or citizenship. Because Congress has failed to enact the Dream Act, the USCCB supports this action of the Department of Homeland Security since it will protect these young people from deportation and will give them authorization for work. But this is no substitute for the enactment of the Dream Act which would give these youth a path to citizenship.

In looking at this complex issue, I wish to state again that the United States bishops recognize the right of nations, including our own, to control and protect their borders. We do not support so-called “open borders.” We are concerned about border security, especially in the face of international terrorism. We accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States. We also believe that by increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the U.S., law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would-be-terrorists. Also, we believe that any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane. We do not believe that an enforcement-only policy is just or effective. We support comprehensive immigration reform as I have outlined, one based on principles that respect human life and dignity, the requirements of justice, and human solidarity.

The Church does not favor illegal immigration in any sense. It is not good for the migrant, who often suffers abuse by smugglers, exploitation in the workplace, and even death in the desert. It is not good for society or for local communities, because it creates a permanent underclass with no rights and no opportunity to assert them. That is why the Church supports the creation of legal avenues for migration and legal status for migrants.

In the end, I think it is most important for us who are Christians to consider the issue of immigration from the perspective of Jesus and the Gospel. We must remember the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). Blessed John Paul II wrote: “Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that stranger in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself.” The Holy Father used very strong words in declaring that “In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere” (World Migration Day 1996). “For the Christian, every human being is a neighbor to be loved, without limits or conditions” (John Paul II, 1999). John Paul urged parish communities to help promote a more worthy quality of life for immigrants and to affirm their human dignity, giving them hope in the midst of difficult challenges.

In many ways, the Church in the United States today finds itself again an “immigrant Church.” Many of the new immigrants to the United States are Catholic. Without condoning illegal immigration, we support the human rights of immigrants and we offer them pastoral care, education, and social services, no matter what the circumstances of entry into this country. Welcoming the stranger was a characteristic of the early Church and is a permanent feature of the Church’s life. It is intrinsic to the nature of the Church itself in fidelity to the Gospel.

The issues our nation faces regarding its immigration laws and policies are complex and challenging. But I believe the Church’s voice needs to be heard in the ongoing debate, a voice which never ceases to proclaim the truth about the dignity of the human person and to call people to justice and solidarity. These values must be upheld and protected as we face the pressing problems associated with immigration into our country. The greatness of America depends, to a large extent, on our fidelity to these moral truths and values.