A 3-question examination of conscience on immigration that all Catholics need to do
Linda Dakin-Grimm’s vibrating phone interrupts her. She glances at the message, then apologizes to our group of university leaders: “Excuse me, I need to look at this.” We nod. Something is very wrong. As an experienced lawyer, she has been explaining to us the intricacies of the powder keg of current immigration laws.
Ms. Dakin-Grimm, a senior consulting partner at Milbank, an international legal firm, finds time for pro-bono work representing unaccompanied minors. She’s also a theology student, and her ability to weave together theology and law is reminiscent of prophetic figures in the church’s history who have fought for human rights. Ms. Dakin-Grimm feels that her faith reverberates through her legal work, and that her legal work has a vital purpose.
Back at the committee meeting, Ms. Dakin-Grimm tells us what’s wrong. A father she knows—law-abiding and hardworking—has been arrested at his home by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while his child is at school. The lawyer-theologian has the presence of mind to remember school dismissal time; she will be there to meet the boy.
Our committee, like hundreds around the country, is discussing the frighteningly volatile state of immigration law and how this affects our students and their families. Like many universities, both religious and secular, we educate undocumented students as part of our mission and know that many live with undocumented family members, especially parents. Ms. Dakin-Grimm’s call reminds us of the pain in the community and the urgent need for a a new way forward.
The neighbor’s call alerted Ms. Dakin-Grimm, but it takes her days to locate the father. After a month he is released on $3,000 bail, thanks to a supportive letter from his bishop. She explains, “What comes next is a hearing, or series of hearings, in immigration court, where he tries to make a case for asylum or withholding of removal. If he cannot do that, he gets deported. Most people lose at this stage, but in part because they have no lawyer or a bad lawyer.”
Questions of immigration policy are intertwined with the most problematic issues human communities face: race, economics and power.
Family members of undocumented persons who have provided the government with their addresses for legal measures—like the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals or asylum seekers—are encountering a new detention process. Also, when ICE agents are searching for a particular person, they are now arresting anyone in their path deemed to lack proper authorization. We hear a new term for the undocumented innocent, they are “collateral damage.”
An inordinately large proportion of Catholics are now living in constant fear, and unless we find a way to overcome the impasse, we have no business claiming any allegiance to the Beatitudes.
Challenged by a Costly Grace
Questions of immigration policy are intertwined with the most problematic issues human communities face: race, economics and power. Migration is a feature of being human throughout history. The Holy Family crossed into Egypt fleeing persecution, and Peter was suspected of being a revolutionary because of his Galilean accent.
Catholics cannot solve this problem alone, but we must be part of this work to protect the vulnerable; we must help to remind others of the transformation that is possible, the knowledge that water becomes wine through the power of love. Catholics are called to act and to equip ourselves with truth-telling tools to transform the polemics of immigration into a grace-filled response to human suffering. To do this, I offer here a three-question examination of conscience on the topic of immigration. Through such spiritual practices, we must activate our resolve to contribute to Jesus’ promise of an abundant life.
Do I understand who these vulnerable immigrants are and why they are here?
Although undocumented immigrants come to the United States from everywhere, the overwhelming majority in recent decades come from our shared American continent: North America (Mexico), Central America, the Caribbean and South America. Although they are our global neighbors, we often fail to stand with them in solidarity. Epithets are hurled at these immigrants not only on the streets but also from Washington, D.C. Hardworking parents are insulted and called “illegals,” children are taunted at school and told they will all be deported. They are afraid.
At our parishes in Los Angeles, we hold workshops advising fellow parishioners to carry proof they have been in the United States for longer than two years so they will not be immediately deported. Our archdiocese makes holy cards with the beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on one side and a stark response to immigration officials on the other. It begins, “I do not wish to speak with you,” and ends with, “I choose to exercise my constitutional rights.” Even more heartbreaking, this prayer card lists the preparations a family should make, including arranging who will care for children should parents be arrested. The cards are distributed in multiple languages, our city, Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, is a crossroads of the world, and our Catholic community is plural, universal, beautifully diverse.
The present situation is rooted in history. Five hundred years ago, the viceroyalties of Spain, understood as provinces in this hemisphere, stretched from the present Canadian border to the southern tip of South America.The official governing structures established in 1535 envisioned almost the entire American continent as one Spanish nation. San Augustín in Florida was founded within 30 years, and by the time the small colony in Jamestown was established in 1607, three generations had passed in New Spain. As “American” colonists defeated the British in 1781, 10 generations of indigenous, black, Spanish and mixed race Hispanoamericanos had lived in these vast lands.
It was not until 1819, after multiple expeditions, disputes and treaties that a new international border for the Spanish lands was settled with the new United States. When Mexico won its independence shortly after, the same boundaries remained. With this boundary, Mexico, which promptly declared itself anti-slavery, still held on to most of its territory and encompassed the present states of New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas and western Colorado.
Mexico had a 300-year-long history and at least 12 generations of people before these lands became a part of the United States in 1848. Given that the indigenous populations are the roots of the Mexican people, we realize a pre-Colombian and legitimate ancient connection to this land.
The matter of humans migrating need not be a partisan issue. The frightened Haitians crossing to Canada, the Central American children making excruciating journeys north, the Syrians fleeing unspeakable atrocities, the Mexicans who want to join their families and the over 65 million people displaced worldwide just in 2016 are simply human beings, not governments, and victims of multiple and conflicting ideologies and governments. One of the many ironies of the mistreatment experienced by vulnerable immigrants is that their pleading presence among us witnesses to their trust in the American democratic experiment. The only way immigration is a partisan issue is if there is a political party against democracy, decency and the well-being of other humans. I do not believe there is such a party.
The only way immigration is a partisan issue is if there is a political party against democracy, decency and the well-being of other humans.
Have I resisted the rhetoric that undocumented people are illegal and criminals?
We are constantly told that immigration is a national security issue, but for most of human history the movement of people has gone unregulated. Humans migrate because of violence, collapsing economies, climate devastation, persecution, political oppression, religious intolerance and family reunification. Multiple studies also show that immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born populations.
Immigration was not an issue involving national security until World War I, because of the fear of sabotage from European immigrants. It was not until the second decade of the 20th century that passports and a Border Patrol were established. And not until the 1930s did immigration move from the Department of Labor, where it was understood to be driven by economic factors, to the Department of Justice, where the focus became law enforcement.
World War II brought the most egregious “criminalization” of immigrants in our history. Executive Order 9066 (1942) stripped “all persons of Japanese ancestry...both alien and non-alien” of their freedom. Forced to dispose of property and subject to multiple indignities, over 100,000 people were forcibly incarcerated in camps set up in desolate areas of the western United States.
Because power rewards those who hold it, some even profited from this situation. One example is the newspaper magnate Elias Boddy, who bought the camellia nurseries of Japanese-American horticulturalists at fire-sale prices. Mr. Boddy’s Descanso Gardens, near Los Angeles, boasts one of the best collections of camellias in the world—the silent blooms reminders of the people who lovingly cultivated and then lost them.
As we examine our conscience, we must note who benefits from the suffering of those whose humanity we fail to defend. It was in 1976 that President Gerald R. Ford officially proclaimed the end of the infamous executive order, vowing to “resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.”
During one of the Republican campaign debates, Donald Trump spoke glowingly (and hyperbolically) of an Eisenhower era that deported 1.5 million illegal immigrants, vowing to repeat the feat if he was elected. Operation Wetback (“wetback” is a vile slur against Mexican immigrants) set out to deport workers and their families. The June 12, 1954, issue of The Los Angeles Times reported:
An army of border patrolmen complete with jeeps, trucks and seven aircraft will begin moving into El Centro today, dispersing their forces for an all-out war to hurl tens of thousands of Mexican wetbacks back into Mexico.
Following Donald Trump’s remarks in 2015, a very different Los Angeles Times recounted:
The Eisenhower-era operation deported closer to 300,000 people...accompanied by scores of deaths and shattered families. In some cases, U.S. citizens were apprehended and deported alongside unauthorized immigrants. Raids were concentrated in border communities but stretched as far north as St. Louis. In the pre-civil rights era, few spoke up on behalf of the immigrants.... Barely a decade had passed since the Japanese internment.
It is important to note the difference in language, where Mr. Trump and those who share his ideology routinely refer to “illegal immigrants,” the journalist uses the language of “unauthorized immigrants.” This is not political correctness, but fact. Federal immigration judicial proceedings are processed through civil, not criminal courts. Because of this, immigrants are routinely denied due process and many are removed without ever being able to speak to a judge.
A recent study from the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, “Intake Without Oversight,” explains that “one in three migrants apprehended while crossing the desert reported suffering an abuse by the Border Patrol,” yet almost none file a complaint. In response, the Kino Border Initiative began assisting persons deported to the city of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. Although many deportees were too fearful to file complaints, K.B.I. prepared 49 cases in a 17-month period. The ministerial connection is obvious when we note the nature of the violations: excessive use of force, denial of medical care and food while in custody (including to pregnant women), separation from loved ones and verbal abuse.
A landmark study published in The Journal of Law & Economics analyzed data classifying the recorded offenses of undocumented persons taken into federal custody under the Secure Communities plan by ICE from 2008 to 2012. The data shows that almost one-third had no criminal record and of those with convictions only 28 percent were serious offenders. Thus, a majority of the detained had no connection to criminally illegal activities.
The Obama administration rescinded Secure Communities and prioritized those with serious criminal convictions. President Trump reinstated the Secure Communities plan with an executive order (Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements), a fact that has received little attention. According to Mr. Trump’s order, applying only to the southern border, and targeting the Hispanic population, anyone may be “apprehended on suspicion of violating federal or state law, including federal immigration law, pending further proceedings regarding these violations” (2.c).
The fear of deportation forces families into the shadows.
Two changes are made: “suspicion” is enough to justify arrest, encouraging racial profiling of every person of Hispanic descent. Second, immigration law is now included in the violations of law that can trigger arrest. Consequently, when administration officials refer to making “criminals” their priority, it implies that now every unauthorized person is a criminal, placing “unlawful aliens” in the same category as suspected terrorists.
As the Pew Research Center explains in “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population,” a sizable majority of the undocumented enter legally with work or tourist visas. This is the case of a young woman I know. Her father was recruited by a U.S. firm under a work visa and promised the family would be sponsored for permanent residency.
After he had spent years building a life in the United States, the firm closed, leaving him with no job and no visa. After a fraudulent immigration lawyer disappeared with all their funds, the family, now with two children, became undocumented, having no way to adjust their status. The fear of deportation forces families into the shadows, unable to report fraud and close to destitute because of the drain of bogus legal fees.
Have I understood the economics of this issue?
The stereotype of immigrants who come to take away jobs misrepresents the great migrations that populated the United States. In the ingrained rhetoric of the powerful, immigrants are reduced to a plus or minus sign as they calculate financial gain.
As we well know, the original “citizens” of the United States were only affluent white men. It would take the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment to delineate rights for others who were not among the male landed gentry, although it would not be until 1924 that indigenous people would be granted full citizenship. The Trump administration’s recent proposal that only the skilled and English-speaking be legally allowed into the United States, denying entry even to immediate family members of citizens who do not meet these “merit” criteria, could have far-reaching consequences. As research shows, the economic growth, productivity and innovation that have made the United States the world’s most developed economy are due to generations of people who were hungry, had courage and love for their families and worked hard. If we become a nation that welcomes only those who are already rich, we will lose the fire in our belly that made us who we are.
An examination of conscience is part of the process of reconciliation our tradition has understood as sacramental. It opens us to our mistakes, encourages our contrition and through forgiveness invites us to a new relationship with our God and our world. Can we take this opportunity for grace to manifest itself in our present painful circumstances? Our immigrant sisters and brothers are waiting.