The Catholic Thing
Immigrants, Legal and Illegal Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 14 November 2011

From 2000 to 2010, the United States admitted 11,342,055 legal immigrants, by my amateur’s accounting, based on figures from the Department of Homeland Security. The numbers, for some reason, are not particularly easy to find where you might expect, at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And they are broken out in ways that seem intended to deter easy analysis. But in simple terms, since the beginning of the new millennium alone, about 3.6 percent of 312,596,746 Americans are new arrivals. Almost one in every twenty-five people. And that’s not counting another million+ in 2011 and tens of millions before 2000.

This picture hardly squares with the usual complaints, including those from people in the Church, that Americans are xenophobic and do not welcome the “stranger and the alien” among us (cf., Leviticus 19:33-34). Indeed, such Biblical moralizing has been, I believe, a hindrance, more than a help, in the debate about illegal immigration, because most Americans resent such patent untruth.

The bishops on the USCCB’s Committee on Migration invited me and several other Catholics to a luncheon discussion yesterday in Baltimore, at their annual November meeting. The focus was how to “spread the immigration message to Catholic groups.”

I have great esteem for the bishops on this committee, especially Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Wenski of Miami. And I also believe that illegal aliens must have their status – prudently – regularized. There’s simply no good alternative. Nonetheless, that way of putting the problem seems to me itself a problem.

To begin with, what “immigration message” are the bishops supposed to spread? If it’s care and respect for everyone in America, regardless of legal status, I join them. Care and respect for all human beings is, or should be, not only a Catholic, but a universal, assumption.

Still, that leaves the legal and political questions basically untouched.

I repeat here only what I have said to the bishops for some time:  America is a nation assembled from different waves of immigrants, going back to the people who crossed the ice bridge over the Bering Strait from Asia at the end of the last ice age – our first Native Americans. Unlike most other nations, little holds us together beyond our loyalty to American ideals, among which prominently, is the rule of law.

Unfortunately, widespread – and I believe, deeply mistaken – assumptions exist among the media, the academy, and political actors that social conflicts are always about race, class, and gender. Many who shape our public culture think the way most Americans speak about “illegals” is a set of code words justifying sheer prejudice.

The reality is less sinister – and harder to deal with, especially if you approach it as a question of social justice instead of a matter of actual, which is to say, legal justice. And simple fairness. Besides the more than 11-million legal immigrants since 2000, at any given moment there are around 5-million people waiting for legal permission to enter the country permanently. Many of these already have relatives here or face dangers at home equal to those anywhere on earth.

As I’ve mentioned here before, my wife is an immigrant, and she and tens of millions of others, along with their friends and acquaintances, feel anger when they see people who didn’t follow the rules treated the same as those who did – and sometimes even indulged, as if they occupied some moral high ground. An activist for immigrants said to me earlier this year that immigration laws are stupid. Breaking them is about as serious as jaywalking.

If you’re looking for one factor that’s holding up bipartisan action on regularizing millions of illegals, that dismissiveness plays no small role. Many Americans feel it as contempt for what they regard as simple justice. Yes, Americans are angry over our porous borders – especially, with Mexico, an almost failed state. Even before 9/11 and the economic crisis, illegal immigration was a neuralgic issue because it breaks one of those slender bonds among the American people: the law.

Religious people usually don’t like to hear it, because they have a vague sense that law and love are opposed terms. (Law is impersonal, love personal.) But in society at large, equal love towards all is expressed precisely by way of impartial law. The rule of men, historically, has been a recipe for tyranny and corruption. The rule of law is no automatic guarantee, absent good people, but at least it starts from solid truth about human nature.     

Within a Church that prides itself on long experience of humanity and understands the virtue of prudence, it’s exasperating that more people don’t recognize this problem. America bears responsibility, legal and moral responsibility, for having let this terrible situation go on for so long. By the time you have 10- or 20-million people illegally within your borders, absent a Stalin-like figure, you can’t deport them all. That will not happen in America.

The only real alternative: secure borders and a properly demanding path to regular status for those already here, maybe lasting a decade or more and also including financial penalties. The Church can help with this process but might be even more effective working on some other questions as well.

There is racial prejudice in America, prominently prejudice against Hispanics because of their large share (three-quarters?) in the illegal population. Since the economic downturn, we’ve also seen increased worries about their drain on welfare and medical systems, crime, and effects on America’s troubled national culture.

The Catholic Church, with its rich and articulated social vision – not a captive of a political party or single ideological perspective – is one of the few institutions in America able to fight prejudice, of course, but also equipped to address concerns about law, order, stability, and fairness that – far from being rationalizations of prejudice – are legitimate issues in any good society, especially one that must negotiate the promises and perils of being, uniquely, a nation of immigrants.

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, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Patrick, November 14, 2011
I mostly agree with the points made, but it would have been interesting to hear a bit more from the bishops' side about what the "immigration message" is. It sounds like the author either didn't attend the luncheon or wasn't paying attention, or did no one actually say anything there? It seems to me unlikely that any Catholic bishops have actually advocated breaking the immigration laws. Who is being quoted in the jaywalking statement?

Support for the rule of law is certainly welcome, but not, I don't think, particularly controversial. It would be nice to have got a better sense of what the opposing argument actually is, since I don't think many people seriously consider illegal immigration to be quite comparable to jaywalking, although I could be wrong.
written by Robert Royal, November 14, 2011
Despite the unnecessary rudeness of the previous remark, let me clarify so that we do not get involved in a fruitless distraction. I deliberately chose to offer only my own position here. It's not my business to characterize or speak for anyone else. The bishops have made numerous public statements that are easy to find. And have detailed plans for better focusing and communicating their own message, which ncludes engaging people they don't usually hear from.
written by Other Joe, November 14, 2011
We seem to be living in the age of a la carte morality. This extends beyond "cafeteria Catholics" to secular society. Many seem to believe that a personal desire or grievance is superior to law. This is in line with the extreme individualism that (as noted last week) leads inevitably to statism. Laws are social. Desires and grievances are personal. A self-centered and self-referenced morality is opposed to social intercourse and love of neighbor. It breaks down rather than builds up societal bonds and creates suspicion, anger and the potential for violence. Laws are not laws that are capriciously applied, or worse, manipulated for political purposes. The system of politically driven rewards to favored “clients” and punishments for those who fail to play along is the essence of political corruption. The secular government seeks to regulate the citizens in ever increasing detail while failing to provide basic security, a stable (and sustainable) monetary environment and the impartial application of law. The lady with the sword and scales was blindfolded for a reason. Lately she’s been cheating.
written by Ana, November 14, 2011
I agree with most of what you say about this issue, but on what grounds do you say that Mexico is an "almost failed" State? On the superficial media that you get about that country in the United States? Have you been to Mexico and understood the reasons that in most cases oblige many to immigrate up north?
written by Trish, November 14, 2011
In the same way that the best doctor is one who treats the illness itself and not merely the symptoms, it would seem to me that if we were really wise as a nation, it would be better if we were to put some sort of pressure on countries like Mexico to clean up their act so that their citizens can have a good life in their own homeland and won't feel the need to emigrate from their home in the first place. Sure, they may see benefits in coming illegally to the U.S., but would it not be better if people could be happy and safe in their own home? And if these failing countries never feel any pressure, the rate of emigration is never going to decrease, because the illness would still be raging. Dealing with the problem of illegal immigration after the illegals are already here is only treating the symptoms. It's not just that American citizens who abide by the laws and pay their taxes should have to have our laws violated and to take on all the issues that come with illegal immigrants, all because our government won't stand up for the country. And then, if illegal immigrants disregard the basic law of citizenship, then does this not suggest that there's not going to be much concern for other laws once they're here? Anyway, I'm not sure what form pressure against these countries might take, but I'm sure there are enough brains out there that could figure something out.

But, I have to add that it does nothing for the argument when so many people -- I see this all the time in my generation (I'm a Generation X-er) and the one behind me -- have total disregard for many laws, like music copyright laws, traffic laws, etc. It's hard to convince people who are for totally opening the borderes to illegals that we're concerned about the law when so many folks don't care much for a lot of the laws out there.
written by Howard Kainz, November 14, 2011
I think there is broad-based agreement that our borders need to be secured. But "the devil is in the details." How do you secure the borders? The wall? Massive increases in border surveillance? Implementation of federal laws against the hiring of illegals? We're talking about an immensely long border, and immense motivations for crossing it.
written by Raymundo Martínez, November 14, 2011
I agree with part of the arguments written by the author, but the point the made me pretty angry was the afirmation that Mexico is "an almost failed state". Has the author been in México? Here are interesting data about México's growth: we have a higher rate of literacy than Brasil (92.9% over 90% of Brasil), and many others. I can't deny that there is a big problem with the drug cartels, that buy most of their guns in the USA, and sell most of their "product" in the USA (the biggest market). It looks like the author only knows México, from the media.
written by Achilles, November 14, 2011
Raymundo y Ana, Are you two serious? Mexico has failed its people for countless generations. Unfortunately, liberation theology is damaging its single greatest source of renewal, The Roman Catholic Church. Ana, escuchas a ti misma, you say "Mexico is not an almost failed state." and in the next breath claim there are "reasons that in most cases oblige many to immigrate up north." So in your fantasy of a not failed state, it is so good that many don't even have the free will to opt against breaking US national law? I don't think you can have it both ways chica.
Y Raymundo, no se lo que puedo decir a ti. Multiculturalism blinds us. It is a false pride.
written by Joseph, November 14, 2011
The real issue isn't the illegal immigrants. The real issue is the importation and exploitation of cheap labor by companies seeking to reduce wages for jobs they can't outsource to Asia, often skirting employment laws (hazardous work conditions, paying below minimum wage, threatening workers with deportation, etc.)in doing so. Punish companies that exploit labor and the demand for illegal immigrant labor will wither.
written by Thomas C. coleman, Jr., November 14, 2011
@Patrick. It is not hard to imagine a Catholic prelate advocating the breaking laws, since that is exactly what Abp Gomez's immediate predecesor, Cardinal Mahoney did? Before I tiry to make several serious points, please indulge me as I point out that those who crossed the frozen Bearing Straits could not have been the first Native Americans; only their offspring could be called that. I can't help myself. Now, as to the assertion that social vision of the Church is "not a captive of a political party..." I think that the humbers show that not only the laity but more prominently the clergy bleieve that the Abortion Party represents the true goals of Christianity. After all, the most virulently, pro-abortion, pro-homosexual behavior, pro-socialist, and anti-CAtholic amdinistration was elelcted with significant suport from Catholics. There is another aspect of the way that many Catholics view the immigration issue, namely that the underlying assumption of the expression "undocumented alien" is that our laws are not valid because as a non-socialist country our government is not valid. We are in big trouble.
written by Ben Horvath, November 14, 2011
Dr. Royal - you mentioned two particular words that resonated with me: responsibility and contempt.

Responsibility - the US Government has a responsibility towards its poor citizens to protect their livelihoods and their persons. In allowing unlimited immigration from Mexico (and also other places), the government is failing to protect the jobs unskilled Americans might do by allowing employers to hire foreigners who will work for less (and will admittedly do a better job in many cases than the least skilled natives). In addition, many of the children of immigrants from Spanish speaking countries will be treated preferably by our institutions (needless to say the white poor will be the ones who will be discriminated against).

Illegal immigration also offends against persons in the following ways:
- many of the children of illegal immigrants assimilate to underclass gang member values rather than middle class American values
- Mexico at least provides a safe location for its citizens who commit crimes in the US, including murder
- Illegal immigrant migration can change the demographics of communities and encourage native born Americans to leave because of the attendant problems.

Please notice that all of the drawbacks of Illegal immigration I've mentioned are burdens almost exclusively born by poor Americans. In contrast higher income middle class people and wealthy people benefit in some ways - inexpensive servants and other workers for example.

So, the poor are bearing the burden of high levels of immigration, which brings me to the next word:

Contempt - The attitude that pro-immigration groups take toward anyone who questions unlimited immigration mirrors the general contempt towards the poor, particularly poor whites, that is demonstrated by the elites in our society. They are stereotyped as unthinking bigots, which means in modern thinking that they are beings without moral worth.

Our Bishops should understand that loving our neighbor sometimes actually means loving our actual neighbor and not just migrants or exiles who are the recipients of trendy concern because politicians want another ethnic voting block. They are right to insist upon the humanity and moral worth of immigrants including illegal immigrants. They are wrong to insist that the government abdicate its responsibility to poor citizens and continue policies that hurt them.
written by Susan, November 16, 2011
This is an excellent exposition of the problem illegal immigration poses to our society - the problem of the breaking of the rule of law.

Now to solve it, perhaps in exchange for "regularizing" the illegals (to take place before we do so), we can shut down large parts of the welfare state that is attracting so many to break laws to get into the country. This would have positive benefits elsewhere in our society as well.

The Church itself could help in this "de-welfarization" by taking up her proper role in providing charity herself rather than advocating the forcing of citizens to pay taxes to the government to dispense welfare goodies. USCCB role in advocating Obamacare (with a few pretentious caveats about abortion) is a case in point. Now because of Obamacare we've got Catholic hospitals closing and adoption agencies shut down.

When will USCCB get "the message"?
written by Charles Molineaux, November 17, 2011
Very solid and practical suggestion from Susan: shut down large parts of the welfare state. Has the USCCB ever heard the mystery word SUBSIDIARITY ? Is individual charity really encouraged by increasing government-imposed taxes to, inter alia, support welfare programs ?

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