Reimagining Immigration Policy: 10 Questions for Robert Royal

Robert Royal is a Catholic author, academic and founding president of the Faith and Reason Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank dedicated to exploring the intersection of faith and reason in American public life.

He received his B.A. and M.A. from Brown University and his Ph.D from The Catholic University of America. He has taught at Brown University, Rhode Island College, and The Catholic University of America. He is currently editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, an online publication he launched with philosopher Michael Novak. He also serves as the Graduate Dean of Catholic Distance University and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

Mr. Royal has written and spoken frequently on the topic of immigration, seeking a compromise between Catholic ethical principles and realistic public policies. On July 25, I interviewed Mr. Royal about his thoughts on this subject. The following interview has been edited for content and length.

What’s wrong with our current immigration policy in America?

I think the difficulty is that our approach to it has become too bipolar when in fact there are multiple elements. I myself like to emphasize that I’m very sensitive to the fact that the people who are here illegally have broken the law, and I think the U.S. bishops have been relatively sensitive to that, as I’ve testified to them about it a couple of times. But the other side of it is that the United States itself has some moral responsibility to illegal immigrants because we’ve allowed many of them to live here for quite a while. You know, it’s not like they’ve arrived here in spite of our best efforts to keep them out. We’ve allowed them to be here.

In the larger picture, I myself think we should simply be allowing more people to arrive legally. But even as we stand right now, we’re allowing 1.2 million people into our country each year legally. We rarely talk about the large number of legal immigrants. Some people think we’re anti-immigration, racist and xenophobic. That’s because the impression created by this chaos of Latin immigration is that we’re not generous toward people wanting to come here, even though we are generous to a great degree. I don’t think the numbers bear out this negative interpretation. The larger problem is that we make immigration look like an either-or moral question when in fact there are two parties who bear some responsibility for the problem.

What’s right about our current immigration policy?

Every country has got to have established borders. I have conservative and libertarian friends who think it would be perfectly fine to let anyone in who wants to come, but not give them any social services or support once they get here—which I think is rather extreme. What’s right, as I mentioned earlier, is that we do have a fairly generous policy. We’re accepting over a million people a year. Every few years, we’re adding one percent to the population that comes from people who weren’t born here. So we’re a country that still welcomes people from abroad. The problem, as many people see it, is that the American culture itself is not in a particularly strong position at this moment to just take anyone who wants to come. They’re concerned about lawlessness, attention to the Constitution and the possibility that the positive contribution immigrants can make to the country isn’t always happening.

How should the government deal with illegal immigrants who are already here?

I take a middle-of-the-road approach on this. I don’t think you deport them. If there are 12 million illegal immigrants, you don’t deport them all. Stalin could deport 12 million people; the United States is not going to deport 12 million people! But the only alternatives are not between sending people home and making them all citizens. The answer has got to be some sort of regularization, and I use that term instead of citizenship because if we want the political process to move forward at this point, we’ve got to get beyond this amnesty and citizenship language that has our political system so deadlocked on immigration. What we need is a different way to speak about things.

I think there was a time in the Bush administration when Republicans and Democrats were willing to come together on a bill that would have made it hard to get regularized, which would have meant that some people here illegally would never receive citizenship, but would have at least clarified their legal status and allowed many of them to get regularized in the United States. If the legal status of immigrants were made clearer, then we could solve a big part of the problem that everyone keeps talking about. Then we could move forward. The real problem is all this back-and-forth between the two political parties. There has to be a way—we see it now with these kids arriving—of rightly settling the people who have been here a long time in a way that doesn’t encourage problems to worsen.

How should our government deal with the Latin American “kids on the border,” who have started showing up in larger numbers on our southern border without adult supervision?

I don’t have a complete answer to that. I think we have to, just as decent human beings, take care of children, insofar as there are children showing up. If there are other elements, we want to be more careful of who might be slipping through in those groups. But there’s no question, if it’s innocent kids who show up, you have to deal with the immediate humanitarian needs. And that’s what Pope Francis recently said. I agree with him. But he went on from that point to talk about how there’s a much more complicated relationship between our government and governments in Central America—especially Mexico—that needs to be worked out. Therefore there’s no easy solution. There’s no clear way for us to fix problems that have existed in Central America for decades, or even more than a century, when we have many problems within the United States itself that we don’t seem to be capable of solving. It’s easy to talk about helping other countries deal with their problems. But in point of fact, I don’t think much is going to happen in the short run on that front. So I think we have to be humane, but we also have to be very realistic that we simply cannot accept everybody who shows up on our doorstep—however heart-wrenching it may be to turn some people away.

Why is an open border policy a bad idea both for U.S. citizens and for immigrants?

I think a bipolar approach that says we take either “all immigrants” or “no immigrants” is wrong because you can find some libertarians and conservatives who favor an open border for people who are willing to work without burdening the welfare system or drawing from social services. As the pope has said himself, it’s not humane to encourage children to make this very dangerous journey, being guided by people who are not of the highest moral character, and arriving on the doorstep of the United States where they somehow have the impression that it’s possible for them enter. Regardless of who sent that signal to them, somehow they got it.

But it just seems to me that, unless there’s a larger political attempt to deal with this situation, it’s just going to be intolerable for people on both sides of the border. The people of the United States are not going to stand still for just larger and larger numbers of people showing up on the southern border. Anybody who doesn’t take that into account, regardless of the concern we all share for the immediate circumstances of those who come, is not being realistic about dealing with the problem. Therefore it is not a clear moral solution to simply open the border.

What does Catholic teaching ask us to do in regard to immigration?

Well, I think there has to be a certain generosity. All other questions aside, the United States has historically been a nation of immigrants. I think we have to worry, as the pope warned us, about racism and xenophobia. But I don’t think Americans in general suffer from those two ills nowadays. I think the bigger problem arises when people start to feel so overwhelmed—in certain places of Arizona and California where I talk to people—that they feel threatened by the circumstances that surround them. We can’t say this is simply some sort of exclusionary reaction. The rule of law matters in both Catholic and secular teaching, and where the rule of law is not applied uniformly, people are going to feel there’s a certain unfairness. There are five million people, at any given moment, waiting to come to the United States legally. So the choice to give precedence to people who happen to arrive on our border over this other large group that’s waiting to come legally is not an easy moral decision.

Difficult circumstances have to be taken care of in the name of humanity. But it seems to me that the full way to be a welcoming and non-discriminatory country is to do this in an orderly and legal fashion. If that means enlarging the number of people we allow to enter legally, or targeting certain countries so there isn’t just a tidal wave coming from one particular place like Central America, that’s fine. The rule of law remains important because law is an intrinsic necessity of human society. For me, the fully Catholic approach is to be humane in the short-term, but also to use human intelligence to organize international relations in a way that’s welcoming. It’s got to make sense both for the people who want to come here and for the country that’s receiving them.

How do you balance Catholic ethical concerns with realistic immigration policies?

As I said, I don’t think these things are opposed to each other. I think a realistic policy is going to say no country is able just to accept enormous numbers of people. There has to be a reasoned approach to what the country can accept, to who it’s going to accept and to fashioning a recalibrated set of criteria for use in figuring those things out. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s any conflict at all between being humane in emergency circumstances, while in the larger picture wanting to have a more reasoned and legal policy that respects the human dignity of immigrants.

What might a realistic immigration policy look like?

Maybe what we need is a change of heart before we even talk about that. The bishops asked me—along with Carl Anderson and the current president of Legatus—to testify to the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Immigration last November about what they can do to take their message of compassion for immigrants to more conservative elements in American society. We all said to them, look, the very first thing you have to do is stop assuming that Americans living on the border are racist, biased or prejudiced simply because they’re caught up in these circumstances and don’t like it. When you do that, when you call people racists, it gets their hackles up. Nobody who is a decent person likes to be called a racist by people who don’t appreciate what it’s like to live on the border in the middle of this issue. As a result of this stereotype, what’s started to happen is that even things that might be negotiated are getting stuck, because the key players are going back-and-forth instead of recognizing the larger moral framework—that we’re a nation of immigrants that is not opposed in principle to immigration.

We have to recognize that there are certain long-term problems beyond the immediate needs of Hispanic immigrants, and I tried to explain to the bishops what they are. If our bishops want to be sympathetic to Hispanic immigration, they need to have a broader perspective on immigration. We don’t hear much about Asian immigration or Muslim immigration because the Hispanic numbers are so large and the integration into American society has been so difficult, particularly in certain areas where it has created an undercurrent of worry among people on both sides of the border. But immigration is larger than the southern border. More substantially, I think the content of a new immigration policy for the southern border could be worked out as some combination of stopping the entry into the country and making the regularizations even a little punitive. The bishops know and accept part of that argument. But the middle ground will only be reached when the two sides become less antagonistic to each other. It might come about because everybody wants to solve this problem. It’s just too painful right now for both sides.

If a Catholic encounters someone on the streets whom he suspects to be an illegal immigrant, what should he do?

It just seems to me that even worrying about that question is sort of immigration profiling. Unless you’ve got some reason to inquire into someone’s circumstances, you should just treat them like anybody else you encounter in the course of the day. If you’re a policeman, you might have other obligations that change the way you look at the situation. But just as a normal person, I would treat someone I suspected of being an illegal immigrant just the way I would treat anyone else, since I don’t know any better.

Any last thoughts?

I just want to say, again, that we don’t want to over-simplify this issue. It seems to me that one of the reasons we’ve been stalled on it is that some people have a vested interest, in both political parties and in various economic sectors, to make this problem seem easier than it in fact is. There’s a lot of blame to go around. The media will either blame the people who broke the law or the people who don’t want them here. I’ve even spoken with people in the bishops’ conference who say “yeah, they broke the law, but it’s like jaywalking.” My jaw has to drop whenever I hear this sort of thing, because going from one country to another illegally is not always a small matter. My family has an immigrant background and we have a certain respect for people who come here to work. But coming here illegally is a serious thing. Some of the bishops don’t appreciate that. That being said, there’s just absolutely no way that the other extreme of saying “you broke the law and you’re out of here” is going to happen. As I said, Stalin could deport 12 million people or move them to work camps, but we’re not going to do that. We’re Americans. Even conservatives would begin to object if that were the case.

So we want to keep in mind that there’s plenty of blame to go around here, and therefore there has to be a rational legal deliberation for how this situation is going to be regularized. A regularization compromise won’t totally resolve the issue because people will be angry about it. They’ll be angry because some people will be deported while others are allowed to regularize their legal status. But we’ve simply got to accept the fact that this situation is very complex and we’ve allowed it to worsen for too long. It’s going to take a while to work it all out. These are not black-and-white legal or even moral categories.

Sean Salai, S.J., is  a summer editorial intern at America.

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