Immigration Reform and a Reasonable Church

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote

BY DON CELMMER

It’s popular in some circles today to portray the Catholic Church as the opposite of reasonable.

One example: When the Church insists that its charities, hospitals and universities be allowed to carry out their mission without being forced by the government to violate Catholic teaching, it’s depicted as attacking women’s health care, despite the Church being a strong supporter of health care for all people. Another example: Recent years have seen the rise of more strident, outspoken atheists who, with evangelical fervor and more than a touch of hubris, declare that only their like-minded brethren are freethinkers and that people of any faith are superstitious children at best and hate-filled bigots at worst. Their favorite buzzword: reason.

Of course Pope Benedict XVI and others have long maintained that no conflict or competition exists between faith and reason, that the two in fact work together harmoniously as people engage the world around them. A great example of this is the position the U.S. bishops take on immigration reform, one of six priority issues raised in their reissued document on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

When the bishops speak out on immigration, it’s not the shrill rhetoric of partisan politics or ideology. It’s not even a dense and lofty theological pronouncement. Instead, it’s the calm, educated advice of people who understand an issue, care about it and want to see it resolved for the benefit of everyone involved. It’s the pairing of values rooted in faith with arguments rooted in logic and common sense. It’s humanitarian, and it’s reasonable on numerous levels.

For instance…

When a country is saddled with immigration policies that have resulted in 12 million people living under the radar, it’s reasonable to say, “Everyone recognizes the system is broken; let’s move forward and replace this broken system with something that works so that everyone can benefit.” Hence the bishops’ calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Conversely, the approach of digging in further with the same enforcement-only approach that has been used for the last two decades is an example of repeating the same practice and expecting different results. It’s also reasonable to recognize that one simply cannot deport 12 million people, with the costs, economic disruptions and logistical difficulties making it beyond impractical.

It’s reasonable to question practices like raiding workplaces, separating families and holding people in prolonged detention as a proportionate response to non-violent offenders whose only offenses were motivated by need and, to be blunt about it, family values. It’s reasonable to recognize that a tension can exist between two important values–in this case, the right of a country to secure and guard its borders and the right of people to emigrate to seek a livelihood for themselves and their families–and realize that a creative accommodation can alleviate that tension, whether that means increasing the number of visas given annually to meet demand or removing roadblocks to naturalization for young people who had no choice in coming.

It’s reasonable to want to understand and address the underlying causes that drive illegal immigration. When people risk their lives and leave their families to come to a foreign land, the humane and logical response is to find out what forces compelled them to do such a risky, oftentimes desperate thing. The answer is usually some combination of systemic poverty, economic instability and political or religious persecution, issues the United States can work to alleviate in collaboration with its neighbors.

This is a humanitarian challenge for the United States, but it’s also an opportunity and even a gift. It’s reasonable to look to the historical context, to the tremendous energy and productivity infused in American culture by every subsequent wave of immigrants (most of which occurred under very different immigration laws, rendering moot the popular “well my ancestors came here legally” argument).

And so it’s reasonable not only to know one’s history, but to know oneself, especially as a politically-engaged Catholic. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently noted, “We are a church of immigrants, so we’re particularly sensitive to the rights of immigrants.” This should compel Catholics to approach the challenges of immigration reform not punitively, but as people of compassion, faith and reason.

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