National Catholic Register


Catholics and the Immigration Debate


April 23-29, 2006 Issue | Posted 4/24/06 at 11:00 AM


The fierce battle over immigration legislation that has roiled Washington since the House of Representatives passed a controversial bill last December generally reflects a deep division among Americans.

It is an issue that divides Democrats, Republicans and, frankly, Catholics. How should the faithful Catholic think about the subject?

If any group within American society ought to be able to weigh the issue with charity and understanding, it is the Catholic community. Although nearly every American can trace his lineage to immigrants who came here from somewhere else, Catholics bore the brunt of some especially virulent nativist resistance to their arrival, which began early in the 19th century and continued  well into the 20th. The Knights of Columbus was founded by immigrants and the sons of immigrants, and we struggled long and hard to demonstrate to those who feared and hated us that we were just as fervent about being patriotic Americans as they were.

Moreover, Catholic Americans bring a unique perspective to our country’s relationship with Latin America, since it is populated largely by fellow Catholics, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Nearly a decade ago, the bishops of the Western hemisphere met at the Synod of Bishops for America, and articulated a view that invited us all to adopt a revolutionary rethinking of the way in which we view one another:

“We believe that we are one community; and, although America comprises many nations, cultures and languages, there is so much that links us together and so many ways in which each of us affects the lives of our neighbors.”

There can be little doubt that ours is a Christian hemisphere, indeed, largely a Catholic Christian hemisphere. Our goal should be to create a vibrant (North, Central and South) American Catholic community in which our shared faith and values become a light to the entire world. But we can hardly do so if we view immigrants from elsewhere in the hemisphere with suspicion and hostility.

In his first encyclical, on the subject of love, Pope Benedict XVI cautions that “to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether.” He stresses that charity, which is the product of Christian love, is central to the pursuit of justice.

This is not to say that the United States must accept uncontrolled immigration. For many, there is both a sense of being overwhelmed by migration that is effectively uncontrolled, and a fear of the crime that has too often accompanied it. It is entirely appropriate for Congress to take steps to ensure more effective control over traffic across the border, and in the process deal effectively with drug traffickers and other criminals.

But legislation that takes undocumented immigrants who have come here simply out of a desire to escape poverty and provide for their families and turns them into felons, or which criminalizes those who provide them with humanitarian assistance, is mean-spirited, unjust and wrong.

The bishops of the Synod for America conveyed a genuinely Catholic message to “immigrants who find yourselves unwelcome in the lands where you have moved. … The Church has walked alongside generations of migrants in the march for a better life, and she will not cease to stand by you with every kind of service.”

Immigrants do not give up their innate human dignity at the moment when they cross a border seeking a better life. U.S. bishops, in their 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer,” made clear that “the Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories,” but added that “policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.”

Those of us who now live in great comfort in the United States sometimes too easily forget the abject poverty and desperate circumstances that drove our ancestors to come to America.

Who among us, facing desperate, grinding poverty in a foreign land today, would not try to find their way to America? Obviously, we cannot admit unlimited numbers of such immigrants. The governments of the countries from which they come bear a heavy responsibility for the conditions that are driving today’s mass migration. But that does not mean that we can turn our backs on them.

“Love of neighbor,” Pope Benedict writes in Deus Caritas Est, “consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.”

As Catholics, we are well advised to ponder carefully Pope John Paul II’s words: “In Jesus, God came seeking human hospitality. This is why he makes the willingness to welcome others in love a characteristic virtue of believers. He chose to be born into a family that found no lodging in Bethlehem and experienced exile in Egypt. Jesus, who ‘had nowhere to lay his head,’ asked those he met for hospitality. To Zacchaeus he said: ‘I must stay at your house today.’ He even compared himself to a foreigner in need of shelter: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ In sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus makes the hospitality they will enjoy an act that concerns him personally: ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.’”

As Catholic Christians, and as Americans who are ourselves descended from immigrants, we must allow the light of Christian love to guide our efforts to develop a humane and rational immigration policy.

Carl Anderson is supreme knight

of the Knights of Columbus.