WASHINGTON — No matter where Americans stand on illegal immigration, the U.S. bishops hope they will first look at the people involved as individuals who need to be treated humanely.
“We aim to educate Catholics on this issue,” the need to recognize that illegal immigrants are people first deserving of the dignity God gives everyone, said Kevin Appleby, director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration & Refugee Services Office.
The pastoral education effort of Catholics comes as Congress again considers an overhaul of the nation’s immigration policy, including a controversial legalization for millions of illegal immigrants. The bishops, who support an amnesty-like program, say the comprehensive approach is needed to ensure a legal path for illegal immigrants who are contributing to the American economy to openly join society.
“We hope to achieve a safe manner for people to come out of the shadows and live and work legally,” said Maria Odom, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which supports a path to legalization.
The approach stems partly from the Catholic Catechism, which states in No. 2241 that “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”
Additionally, the ongoing pro-immigrant effort to educate the laity stems from bishops’ long-standing views on immigrants in general. Those views were articulated in the 2003 pastoral letter from American and Mexican bishops, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” The letter details the reasons for the bishops’ position on the treatment of illegal immigrants, based on Scripture and Church tradition, and what that means for U.S. government policy.
“We ask our presidents to continue negotiations on migration issues to achieve a system of migration between the two countries that is more generous, just, and humane,” the pastoral letter states. “We call for legislatures of our two countries to effect a conscientious revision of the immigration laws and to establish a binational system that accepts migration flows, guaranteeing the dignity and human rights of the migrant.”
The letter adds: “Faith in the presence of Christ in the migrant leads to a conversion of mind and heart, which leads to a renewed spirit of communion and to the building of structures of solidarity to accompany the migrant.”
To implement this view and lead in the effort to promote human treatment of immigrants, the bishops’ conference has launched a concerted lobbying effort in recent months to encourage Congress to enact a comprehensive immigration package that would provide citizenship to an estimated 12 million people who entered the country illegally in recent years. Additionally, the conference is urging legislation to address the “root causes” in other countries that are driving the influx of such immigrants. International efforts should include encouraging economic and political reforms in Central and South American nations — from which many illegal immigrants come — to improve the availability of jobs there, according to the conference.
Such efforts to eliminate global underdevelopment are the ultimate antidote to illegal immigration, said Pope John Paul II in his 1995 message for World Migration Day.
The bishops’ advocacy for an immigration overhaul may prove critical to passage of such a measure before the mid-term elections. Liberal Democratic leaders of Congress recently released an outline of measures they plan to include in such a bill, including legalization for millions, a guest-worker program and stepped-up border enforcement. The measure drew praise from the bishops’ conference, although Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, chairman of the bishops’ Catholic Communications Committee, expressed reservations with some smaller provisions.
The advocacy for amnesty-like provisions — the heart of every proposed immigration overhaul — has encountered resistance from some Catholics, some of whom view illegal immigration as threatening an intrinsically secular concern: protection of national sovereignty.
“The strongest argument on the pro-immigration law enforcement side is that any amnesty will undermine respect for the law” among the immigrant population, said Andrew Yuengert, a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.
Although some heated rhetoric has occurred over the immigration issue, Appleby said the bishops’ conference wants to focus on a positive pastoral message that it hopes Catholics will accept.
“Catholics have a right to have a different opinion on immigration,” he said. “We just hope [Catholics] come to see it our way.”
Catholic opponents of amnesty-like legislation note that the Catechism also endorses the right of nations to determine and enforce their own immigration laws for the benefit of their citizens:
“Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption” (No. 2241).
And with about 25 million American citizens facing unemployment during the worst economic downturn in decades, immigration overhaul critics said, it is a terrible time to grant legal status to 12 million illegal immigrants who would immediately compete with current citizens for jobs.
“Where is our moral imperative to put Americans and legal immigrants back to work?” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for Numbers USA, which opposes amnesty. “They have a right to have first shot at the jobs.”
Illegal Immigration Immoral?
Father Patrick Bascio, a Holy Ghost Father who has served in Tanzania, Trinidad and Grenada, agreed that there is “untold suffering of the black and legal Hispanic communities because they cannot find jobs — jobs taken by illegals.”
Supporters of legalization counter that most illegal immigrants are doing jobs that contribute to society but pay so little that Americans would be unwilling to take them.
Jenks blasted the morality of allowing American businesses to pay workers so little that only people who cannot work legally would accept such jobs.
“It’s offensive because that says ‘It’s okay to build our nation on a servant class,’” she said. “There is no morality in that.”
Although national data on the economic impact of illegal immigration on American workers is scarce, immigration control advocates highlight a 2003 University of Chicago study which estimated that immigration accounted for a 7.4 percentage-point decline in the employment rate of unskilled black males between 1980 and 2000. It shrank employment for black males with high school diplomas by nearly 3 percentage points. The authors concluded that the effect of immigration on black workers is three times as large as its effect on whites because immigrants are more likely to compete directly with blacks for jobs.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration control advocacy group, published a 1997 study that found immigration reduced wages for American workers by 10% in some occupations.
Without any national research on specific job displacement, critics also highlight case studies, including a Government Accountability Office-cited study of Los Angeles janitorial services. That study tracked janitorial companies hiring since the late 1970s and found that when several small firms began hiring Mexican janitors at low pay, building owners dropped contracts with the companies that employed blacks in favor of the cheaper contractor. As the immigrant-employing firms grabbed more share of the market, local janitorial industry wages slipped from a peak of $6.58 an hour in 1983 to $5.63 an hour in 1985. The number of black janitors in L.A. also dropped from about 2,500 in the late 1970s to only 600 by 1985.
Father Bascio said reform efforts should focus on encouraging Third World nations to educate their youth and foster entrepreneurism that will allow would-be immigrants to support themselves and their families in their native country. This approach could counter the foreign government policies that encourage mass illegal immigration to the United States, said Father Bascio, who recently published On the Immorality of Illegal Immigration.
Whatever the outcome of the political fight over illegal immigration, the bishops’ message will remain the same: As they stated in “Strangers No Longer,” “Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected.”
Rich Daly writes from Washington.