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Catholics and Immigration Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 02 May 2010

A seminarian I know, if you can believe this, spent several years after college in Arizona with the U.S. Border Patrol. He decided to enter the seminary after an uncle – a Jesuit – died. The only way he could really help people coming across the border illegally, he realized, was as a priest himself. Yet I have also heard him talk matter-of-factly about drug smugglers spraying Border Patrol agents with automatic weapons. He’s deeply sympathetic to illegals, but also aware that border problems run the gamut from hoards of largely harmless poor people to quite dangerous criminals, and everything in between.

I wish our political class and some of our bishops were as realistic about the situation. The new Arizonan law on immigration is bad for many reasons, not least that it puts law enforcement officers in an impossible situation of guessing who might be illegal. Bad, but hardly the “Nazi” tactics that L.A.’s Cardinal Mahony called them recently (L.A.’s Latino mayor absurdly added that Latinos are “the Jews of the twenty-first century”). It’s not “racist” either – Arizona as the new Selma, Alabama, opined racial ambulance chaser Jesse Jackson. There’s evidence that Arizonans want to see more legal immigration. But it is a desperate effort to get someone somewhere to stop talking and do something about conditions intolerable to 70 percent of Arizonans. I suspect a fair slice of the other 30 percent also believe something, just not this, is needed to avert a crisis.

On this issue, the Church ought to be especially careful with her moral authority, which ought to include moral clarity. Cardinal Mahoney’s recently designated successor, Archbishop José Gomez, issued a letter on immigration after he took over in San Antonio. He repeated Church teaching about the dignity of all people, even illegals, and our responsibilities towards them. But he wrote that we have to understand the anger many Americans feel at illegals breaking the law and causing multiple problems. Archbishop Gomez is Mexican-born and favors comprehensive immigration reform. But clearly he does not feel a need to ingratiate himself with Hispanic Catholics.

There are a few Open Borders advocates in the Church and the country. The rest of us understand that without control over who immigrates and their relationship to the political system, we no longer live under the rule of law. In Catholic social teaching and American Constitutionalism, the rule of law is the good alternative to a very bad one: rule by the will of men.

At the protests this weekend against the Arizona legislation, some marchers carried signs reading, “No human is illegal.” True. No government can properly declare anyone’s mere existence on earth against the law. But human beings do things that are illegal, including breaking immigration laws. Protesters with the seemingly liberal attitude want to draw on the Christian sentiment that every person has an inalienable God-given dignity – and to equate it with the right to live in this country at will. Catholics used to be clear about crucial distinctions of this sort. We’re not big on people being a law unto themselves. Far from enhancing her influence, even with Hispanics, a confused notion of charity on questions like this will cast further doubt on whether the Church really understands current problems.

I have heard bishops I respect speak of our national obligation to welcome migrants. Quite true. But that has nothing to do with our immigration problems. Last year, the United States naturalized about 1 million people, mostly Mexicans. In ten years, we have granted citizenship to about 10 million people who worked through the system. Millions more are at various stages in the process or here on green cards. If our nation is deeply racist or xenophobic, it’s a strange way to show it. Here’s an interesting experiment: if you think America is anti-immigrant, ask legal immigrants what they think about those who jump the line.

I happen to have breakfast with a legal immigrant every morning. Since we’re married, I also have to listen to her annoyance that others have broken the law – and then self-righteously demand what they call justice from our legal system. She particularly dislikes the idea of their eventually being given what amounts to amnesty.

I am a squish by comparison. Since it’s utterly impossible to send 10-20 million people back home – and intolerable as things stand – they must be regularized. The politicians can debate what combination of penalties would be fair – though they’re terrified of this political hot potato. I myself don’t think any illegal should be rewarded with citizenship. But if we make sure that we don’t keep getting more of the same troubles, by controlling the border, I could accept citizenship after some longish penalty period. It’s not that hard if the pols get moving. We’ve already secured the border in California and Texas to a large degree, which is why Arizona has become such trouble.

The Church has an important role to play in this process, advocating so that families are not broken up or individuals treated unjustly for having taken advantage of a situation that we Americans have allowed to exist for too long. Given our own passivity, we bear some responsibility for illegal immigration now and have to accept it, mostly, I think, by being prudently lenient where humanity requires.

But bishops and other Catholics cannot let a proper sympathy for people in hard circumstances lead to lying and worse. Illegals are not “undocumented.” They’ve broken the law, which is what illegal means. The rule of law is one of the central things that make the United States a desirable destination. The Catholic Church is probably the one institution in the world which truly understands that love and law are not opposed, but part of one truth. We should talk and act in ways that reflect what we believe. It would help not only illegal immigrants, but all of America.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.


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