Welcoming the Stranger: What Christian faith can bring to the immigration debate
For undocumented immigrants who live and work in the shadows of the United States, life is increasingly marked by a climate of mistrust and contempt. Fear and hatred of immigrants have fueled an increasingly hostile environment. Yet not all of those who have misgivings about earned legalization programs or other proposed immigration reforms can be dismissed simply as racist. People on all sides of the immigration issue seem to agree that the current system is broken and that we cannot simply “enforce our way” out of the problem. A Catholic outlook offers no facile solution to the dilemma of how to handle the 12 million to 14 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. But it does provide tools for analysis.
Immigration is more than a security issue and a legal issue; it involves family values, economics, trade policy and criminal justice. As citizen-disciples it is incumbent upon us to unmask and analyze the human impact of current policies in all these arenas. The failure of the present system and of Congressional efforts to update it have had dire consequences: a significant increase in border deaths, a patchwork of local ordinances that criminalize different activities of immigrants and those who “harbor” them, and the creation of an underclass.
Faithful to Gospel Values
The Christian faith provides rich resources that can be brought to bear on the complicated questions of immigration. This should not be surprising, since Christianity’s central figure was himself a refugee fleeing Herod’s terror and then an itinerant preacher. The biblical and ecclesiastical sources of the Catholic position on immigration rights have been well rehearsed, from commandments regarding hospitality to strangers, to the demands of neighbor love, to an expansive understanding of human rights and the common good. Yet the very core of the Catholic vision of the human person provides a touchstone for analyzing the current immigration situation in this country. Its sacred and social anthropology underscores a commitment to intrinsic human dignity and global solidarity that ought to shape voters’ prudential discernment about candidates’ proposals on immigration.
Over the past decade the United States has tripled the number of its border agents, quintupled its budget and toughened enforcement strategies; but undocumented immigration still has reached record levels. Border buildup and anti-immigrant legislation have placed migrants at greater risk of exploitation and death, but have not served as effective deterrents. Instead, the scale of undocumented immigration has fostered a widespread belief that immigrants threaten the rule of law, social cohesion and the nation’s economic health. In extreme cases, anti-immigrant sentiment in increasingly mainstream outlets has led to the demonization of populations of color; there has been a 25 percent increase in hate crimes against Hispanics since 2004.
The scapegoating of immigrants for various social ills and the perpetuation of a false narrative of “a border under siege” have been fueled in recent decades by the cold war, economic woes and 9/11. The events of 9/11 placed unlawful entry into the United States in the context of national security. Since then many people have all but conflated border crossings in the southwestern United States with the security breaches of large-scale, violent consequence. Even though not one terrorist has been caught along the southwestern border, campaign rhetoric in this election season has identified “toughness” on crime or on terror with punitive immigration policies. Faithful citizens must remain vigilant about the pervasive attitudes that influence us at least as much as Gospel values do, attitudes conveyed in the media and in political rhetoric that encourage xenophobia or ethno-cultural nationalism.
While some may demonize and scapegoat immigrants, others gladly accept the sweat and taxes they provide. Undocumented immigrants make up three-quarters of the day-labor workforce. Yet because of these laborers’ dire need and vulnerability, they often suffer from violations of basic labor standards; exploitation ranges from widespread wage theft to physical violence.
Catholic social teaching explicitly protects the basic human rights of undocumented migrants in host countries, grounded in an inviolable human dignity that knows no borders. Basic economic rights to a just wage, safe working conditions and health care assistance for on-the-job injuries are not relinquished when one crosses a border. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II condemns the exploitation of migrant or seasonal workers in light of the fundamental principle of Catholic economic ethics: “The hierarchy of values and the profound meaning of work itself require that capital should be at the service of labor and not labor at the service of capital.”
The tendency to value capital above persons helps to foster the dehumanizing conditions that create economic refugees and exploit undocumented workers. A subtly entrenched market mentality pervades much of U.S. practice and discourse on immigration. It can be seen in the asymmetry of U.S. policy: compare the attention given to bolstering southwestern border fortifications with the nearly negligible surveillance of containers entering U.S. ports and the free flow of capital. While border fortifications increase, only 2 percent of the containers entering U.S. ports each day are checked.
There are other mismatches, such as those between the flow of labor and capital and between the needs of the U.S. unskilled-labor market and the legal ways to meet those needs. A decline in the number of manufacturing jobs and an increase in service jobs have added to the market for low-wage jobs. These jobs already exist: recent figures indicate that U.S. immigration regulations allow only 5,000 permanent H2A and H2B visas, when the labor market demands an estimated 500,000 full-time low-skilled service jobs a year. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and others have criticized the practice of posting both “No Trespassing” and “Help Wanted” signs.
South of the border, many leaders agree that recent trade treaties have taken a toll on the most vulnerable populations in Latin America—those who depend on the remittances sent home by family members who have migrated to the United States. This January the bishops of Mexico directly linked a recent surge in immigration to the United States to the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Farmers in small rural communities are unable to compete with heavily subsidized producers north of their border. Christians’ global citizenship challenges the patterns of unequal interdependence illustrated by such market-based relationships.
It is About Family, Too
Objectifying workers as tools of production makes it easier to ignore their roles as mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons. But immigration is a family issue. Approximately five million U.S. children have at least one undocumented parent. Current policies that prevent immigrant workers from attaining or maintaining family unity treat them as economic units and do not recognize their full humanity. The long-term separation of family members that results from immigration policies harms the social fabric of our country and that of the immigrants’ countries of origin. The damage is poignantly evident in workplace raids like the recent sweep in Postville, Iowa. For every two immigrants apprehended in such workplace raids, one child is left without proper care or support. That suggests that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children have been separated from their parents. The raids polarize communities, strain trust between immigrants and law enforcement officers, and divert public attention from the need for systemic immigration reform.
The consequences of federal inaction on comprehensive reform have been grave for families and communities. And an enforcement-only or purely market-based approach remains ineffective. So fundamental is the human desire to be with and to provide for one’s family that a policy that prohibits family members from earning a decent living and (re)uniting will only encourage undocumented migration. Catholic tradition defends the sanctity of the family as the cradle of society that fosters its welfare.
Reform Toward Solidarity
The lives of undocumented immigrants tell a more complex story than that of willful lawbreaking. This is particularly true when we consider the inadequacy of current law, the failure of approaches that begin and end with enforcement, and the Christian commitment to natural law, which censures human structures that enable exploitation and dehumanization. The Catholic position defends marginalized persons regardless of their legal status, particularly those who survive harrowing border crossings and experience exploitation in our legal system and labor market. Rooted in a concept of biblical justice that is relational, effusive and marked by mercy, Catholic teaching demands that we refuse to pit the rights of U.S. workers against those of international workers. A commitment to human dignity and solidarity calls Christians to guard against narrow nationalism, the idolatry of the market and the demonization of the other. From repentance we are called to social conversion toward interdependence in solidarity.
Although these values do not draw a precise roadmap for immigration reform, they do suggest the outlines of a prudent response to the contemporary situation. It is similar to what the U.S. bishops and their allies in the Justice for Immigrants Campaign have advocated in response to “the realities of separated families and labor demands that compel people to immigrate to the United States, whether in an authorized or unauthorized fashion.” The bishops advocate new visa programs that include paths to permanent residency, reform of the family-based preference system, restoration of due-process protections and policies that address the root causes of migration. These are essential to any comprehensive reform bill. Catholic commitments and the present realities suggest additional reforms, among them: allotting more Mexican visas; examining the immigration issue with Mexico as part of the entire bilateral relationship, including economic and trade considerations; and mitigating the local costs of accommodation. (Federal revenue-sharing could disperse funds to states with large immigrant populations, for example, if the population estimates used in their revenue formula reflected foreign-born residents.) Such comprehensive measures could begin to serve both justice and security. They could foster solidarity and reduce undocumented migration.
From the archives, Peter Quinn on the ugly history of anti-immigration sentiment.