Framing the Immigration Debate

Is There a Moral Imperative for Reform?

As the nation struggles with immigration reform, Catholics find themselves on every side of the issue. Sadly, it seems that immigration is another issue that has Catholics at loggerheads on fundamental principles.

Yet the U.S. bishops have been consistently vocal about what Catholic teaching offers for a Catholic approach to immigration.

The bishops’ message is mainly comprised of a call for family-based reform. Theirs is a call for a reform that at once respects our national right to secure our borders while giving priority to the fundamental human rights to seek food and labor.

The bishops insist on an earned path to citizenship. They do not go into details about what that needs to look like, but they support the current legislative approach, which levies several fines, demands payment of back taxes and delays the possibility for citizenship for several years, making citizenship possible only after the border has been made secure. They propose increasing the number of worker visas for low-skilled labor for the commonsense reason that we have many low-skill workers already here, and regularizing them will require increasing the number of visas.

The U.S. bishops also call for getting at the root causes of illegal immigration, which tend to stem from the lack of food and labor in other countries, factors that themselves can be the result of corruption, war, natural disaster or all of the above. International policies that address those problems will help our immigration issues.

Still, though the heart of the bishops’ message is the priority of the family — so that family unity is given preference in the immigration process — questions remain in the minds of many faithful Catholics.

What should reform look like? How long should a path to citizenship be? What is appropriate justice for someone who broke the law to be in this country? What civic and moral responsibility does a sovereign nation have toward people who seek a better life for themselves and their families? Should we just close the border before we consider anything else to break the cycle of illegal immigration?

Part of the reason for those questions is that a system as complex as immigration is bound to be too complex for one gigantic bill purporting to fix everything. The national experience of the Affordable Care Act has many people suspicious of anything titled "comprehensive."

Another reason for Catholic division over the issue of immigration is the confusion over where the line between hard principles and prudential decisions is drawn.

Moral discernment is knowing how to recognize each appropriately. The tendency is to ignore the moral imperatives altogether or dismiss them as prudential matters. Political rhetoric and ideology can get in the way of seeing clearly what is prudential and what is essential.

Some Catholics argue that it is a matter of prudence whether we reform immigration laws before we secure the border. However, that position ignores fundamental injustices which exist right now for those who are already here. These injustices, witnessed by pastors and Catholic social workers all over the United States, revolve around the rights of life and the family.

The Catechism (2207 and following) tells us that the family is the fundamental cell of society. We read in that section that governments "should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life."

In 1991, Blessed John Paul II wrote about the "right to live in a united family." The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states in Section 214, "The priority of the family over society and over the state must be affirmed." Protecting the rights of the family is not, then, a matter of prudence, but, rather, a fundamental moral imperative.

However, under the current system, a father or mother can be deported at a moment’s notice for the misdemeanor crime of being here illegally. Even if he was brought into the U.S. as a minor, and even if his children are U.S. citizens, a father can be separated from his family.

As a result of U.S. policy now, the choice given to a deported dad is to either illegally cross again or "wait in line" to see his own family, which, even if possible, can typically take 10 or more years. The injustice is that a father is separated from his family for a decade or more for a misdemeanor — and sometimes for a misdemeanor he did not even voluntarily commit, since, at times, the father was himself brought here as a minor.

Some argue that fathers, mothers and their children have given up these fundamental human rights to family the moment they crossed the border illegally. That position, however, stands diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Catholic Church and the natural law. The right to the family is more fundamental than the right to secure a border; likewise, the right to life is more fundamental than the right to private property.

Many come to the U.S. not to live a better life, but simply to live, as there is no work in their homelands and so not enough food. These immigrants seek a new home in order to secure their right to life. This is why the U.S. bishops are very clear that, while nations have a right to border security and immigration policy, human beings have a more fundamental right to life and family. When two sets of rights find themselves at odds, the Church tells us to favor the more fundamental rights. In this case, they are the rights to life and family.

None of this means that the U.S. is obliged to let "everyone" in. Neither does it mean that we take no provisions for safeguarding our economy. Prudential discussions about the social safety net and the immigrant are reasonable. Whether the public should trust the White House to enforce whatever law is passed is a legitimate question. The shape of a proposed path to citizenship can be left up to prudential opinions over which Catholics can debate. Limits to who qualifies as family ought to be laid out clearly through prudential thinking.

But that reform needs to happen now should not be up for debate. The rights of life and family are too sacred to leave them up to some hoped-for future after border security.

As Catholics, we believe we are responsible for our neighbor, even if he or she is not a citizen of our country. So while we can disagree about how to create a better system, that a better system needs to come about is a moral imperative to which Catholics should respond.

Omar F.A. Gutiérrez works for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska,

as the manager of the Office of Missions & Justice.

St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

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