The recent “Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided” conference began with Ave Maria Radio’s Al Kresta urging us laypeople to dig in and relish our vocation to “intentional discipleship.” It also included William B. May’s refreshing, child-centric approach to the marriage wars. And it took up immigration. Which brings us (one day late) to…
One of These Things is Not Like the Others?
I was initially startled to see immigration included in a conference whose other themes were marriage, life, and religious freedom. It’s a hot-button political topic—but what does it have to do with Catholic witness? It’s not about life, or family, or faith—is it?
In fact, it overlaps with all of these, as well as with economic policy, human dignity, foreign relations, justice, charity, measures of the value of the person, and the proper sphere of government. And it's an issue of faith, at least de facto: 60 to 70% of today's immigrants are Catholic. The Church is the second institution (after the government) that interacts with them.
On the other hand, immigration policy is not as clear-cut and non-negotiable as abortion, marriage, and freedom of religion. It’s a prudential matter. Many political conservatives are unequivocally in favor of life, marriage, and religious freedom, but they believe that the bishops’ take on immigration is wrongheaded—an unfortunate left-wing reflex that has no place among concerns for life, liberty, and the family.
Where Does Immigration Fit, Then?
Of course, neither the Church nor personalist philosophy has a lot of use for political labels, and we should all beware of assuming a simplistic split between “social conservative” and “social justice” Catholics.
Immigration doesn’t really lend itself to the one-dimensional approaches to be found on both sides. Stereotypes abound. No doubt many immigrants fall somewhere in between the portrait of the noble, hardworking patriarchs and matriarchs who've sacrificed everything for a better life for their family,
and the caricature of the indolent, opportunistic freeloaders who want nothing more than to clog up their host country's emergency rooms and state universities.
At one extreme, some speak as if the line between legality and illegality were irrelevant; at the other, people seem to equate failure to have one's papers in order with crimes of violence and terrorism.
A Point of Departure
Here’s a starting point on which I hope we can all agree, as expressed by Al Kresta:
Borders are important but secondary to the well-being of persons. Borders are for persons, not persons for borders.
This is not tantamount to “Amnesty now!” Concern for persons does mean protecting the immigrant from exploitation. It could mean opposing, for instance, a law that mandated priests hearing the confessions only of legal residents.
But it also embraces concern for the citizens whose physical safety or ability to support their own families is threatened by those who aren’t legal residents. It includes, too, respecting the rights of those who do endure the headaches of attaining legal status.
And borders are important, because the rule of law, and thus the common good, are important. Concern for human dignity doesn’t require the chaos and insecurity of out-of-control borders.
…Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
These words have never been scrubbed off the Statue of Liberty, but they hardly express the current state of immigration policy, or the sentiments of much of the populace. Some would be perfectly content to let the "wretched refuse" stay right where it is, and our system for evaluating prospective immigrants has given rise to plenty of satire:
Kevin Appleby, the Bishops' spokesman at the conference, argued, for example, against assigning an engineer ten points and the child of immigrants two. A nation needs some standard of evaluation, if only to protect itself from enemies and criminals, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how a system that rates human beings according to economic and educational status could involve serious moral blind spots.
Many draw a sharp distinction between immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and more recent ones. The former worked tirelessly, assimilated, learned the language, and became strikingly patriotic. My great-grandfather went from selling housewares off a pushcart in the Bronx
to establishing a hardware store that supported the family for generations. My mother-in-law arrived from El Salvador at age 26, took a job as a hat check girl in a San Francisco hotel,
and then logged countless hours as an accountant, eventually sending her children to Harvard and Yale. People from this generation have little patience for anyone who tries to tell them that America is anything but the greatest country in the world.
Immigrants today arrive in a nation with much less use for patriotism, keener appreciation of their own native cultures, growing acceptance of an entitlement mentality, and numerous bureaucratic and ideological barriers to succeeding by dint of sheer hard work. If they remain attached to their cultures and value the health and educational benefits offered them, you could say that's because they are assimilating to current American culture, not contaminating it.
Demographics and other Life Matters
Leaving aside the question of legality, some speak as if our country simply cannot afford to welcome more inhabitants. Were it not for immigrants, though, our underpopulation problem would be much more acute and conspicuous. If we had a normal birthrate, we’d have a much larger and younger population than we do. Sheer numbers are not the problem.
Others point to the success of pro-abortion politicians in courting immigrants and their votes. They present this as evidence of harm caused by immigration But it’s also evidence of the need to build on the pro-life and pro-family culture than is still strong in many Latin American migrants--
the need to stop conveying the message that the advocates of the unborn and the family view them as a threat.
For those interested in something more than the first impressions of a philosophically inclined housewife, I’ll pass on some resources offered at the conference. Kevin Appleby, the USCCB’s Director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, recommends the Bishops’ website. Fr. Robert Sirico’s Acton Institute addresses the issue, too, and he recommends povertycure.org on the bettering of immigrants’ home countries, and the consequences of trade policies and foreign aid.
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