Shame on This 'Nation of Immigrants'
IMMIGRATION has become a hot political issue this election year. And just as politicians wanted to be “tough on crime” in 1992 and 1994, this year they want to be “tough on immigration” to better their chances of success at the polls.
We seem to have entered into one of those spasms of xenophobia that have occasionally marked our history. There is concern and uncertainty about the economic future of our country and it has become fashionable to scapegoat immigrants for our national problems. Clearly the lament of Pope Paul VI nearly 30 years ago that “human society is sorely ill” is still true today, but blaming immigrants is neither rational nor productive.
Despite the manner in which politicians have debased the issue, immigration is more than mere politics. It concerns real people-those whom Jesus would call the least of his brothers and sisters-whose human dignity is being called into question.
Obviously I do not deny our nation's right-and duty-to police its borders and to develop a sensible and humane immigration policy, but Congress will soon give final form to legislation its proponents argue will “reform” our nation's immigration laws in a most drastic manner. I believe it places the narrow interest above the common good and flatly ignores our nation's responsibility to what John Paul II calls the “virtue” of solidarity. In fact, without significant change, this legislation threatens the very life of some and attacks the human dignity of all who seek to make a better life in the United States. As it currently stands, this legislation is shameful for a “nation of immigrants” where history and convictions have always welcomed the stranger.
There are many problems in the House- and Senate-passed versions of this legislation. Some of them are so egregious in their violation of common moral principles, their lack of human compassion, and their outright threat to life that they deserve special attention.
The House and Senate both have put the lives of unborn children and their mothers at risk by denying Medicaid services-including prenatal care-to legal immigrants. They are certainly the most vulnerable members of the human family, but they're not the only ones whose health is endangered by this legislation. Another provision requires medical providers to turn in those suspected of being undocumented aliens when they seek medical attention. The bill will drive many undocumented to forego medical care as they attempt to avoid inevitable deportation-endangering their own lives and those of the entire community.
Another greatly disturbing part of this bill would present a real threat to the lives of those fleeing persecution in their homelands. It would change the process by which their cases are heard upon arrival in the United States, thus subjecting them to the real possibility of being returned by our country into the very hands of their oppressors. We have a special moral responsibility to protect these people. Allowing a low-level immigration official to determine the asylum status of someone at a port of entry-without appeal-is totally unacceptable.
In another provision, states would be allowed to deny public education to undocumented children. Proponents argue that states should not be saddled with the cost of educating these children, But this cannot really be defined as a financial issue. It is an issue of human dignity-developing in these children the talents and abilities God has given them. It is immoral and illogical to condemn children to a life of illiteracy as punishment for their parents' actions. Furthermore, the provision is short sighted and counterproductive to the goal of saving the state money. I fear that without the structure of the school day, these children will be tempted by delinquency-or worse, become its victim. The money which states think they could save by denying education could instead be needed for additional law enforcement.
All of us-whether we are native born citizens or are those who come from foreign lands-are human beings, and as such we are governed by natural truths which cannot be escaped. We must live in solidarity with one another, actively caring for the needs of those around us-especially the “least among us.” In so doing, we build up the common good. Unfortunately, the immigration legislation pending in Congress neither encourages solidarity nor promotes the common good.
It is a sad time for this great country when aliens are consigned to the exclusionary pronoun “them,” when strangers are allowed to become the scapegoat of many of our frustrations and disappointments, and when the tradition of immigration that made this country what it is comes to be decried as a liability.
Most Rev. Theodore McCarrick is Archbishop of Newark, N.J. He is the immediate past-chairman of the Migration Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops / United States Catholic Conference.
- September 22, 1996