Immigrants, Legal and Illegal

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.