Not Only One Way: Catholics Debate Social Teaching in Immigration Reform

Some involved Catholics examine the issues in play, as debate in Washington shifts to the House of Representatives after the Senate passes its reform bill.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration. (photo:

WASHINGTON — Immigrants living and working illegally in communities throughout the United States may soon have a path to citizenship, thanks to a new U.S. Senate bill. But the legislation has Catholics debating how best to tackle the problem of illegal immigration with the Church’s social teachings.

The Senate passed the 1,200-page comprehensive immigration-reform bill June 27 in a bipartisan 68-32 vote — a move praised by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as a positive step.

“The status quo of our current system causes much suffering among immigrants and their families and must end,” Archbishop Gomez, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said in a June 28 statement.

Passage of S. 744 (the Border Security, Economic Competitiveness and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013), however, has an uncertain fate in the House, where Republican-majority lawmakers have called for securing the U.S. borders against further illegal immigration before extending amnesty to the estimated 11 million immigrants living and working in the U.S. illegally.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not endorsed any proposal on the table. Still, the Senate’s immigration reform has sparked debate among Catholics about the best way to apply Catholic social teaching to the complex problems surrounding illegal immigration.

“We shouldn’t fall into the trap that this bill is the only policy that is perfectly acceptable,” said Matthew Spalding, vice president of American studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy think tank.

Spalding, a Catholic, said the U.S. bishops have the responsibility to set out the “broad principles” of Catholic social teaching, call attention to the problems that offend human dignity and demand solutions.

But he said they need to challenge the Catholic lay faithful to take up their challenge of “working out the prudential details” of how to solve social problems.

The USCCB has stated six principles of immigration reform:

  • Establish a path to citizenship, where undocumented immigrants can “complete and pass background checks, pay a fine and establish eligibility for resident status.”
  • Create a future worker program to relieve illegal immigration that provides just wage conditions and protects the rights of existing American workers.
  • Promote immigrants’ family unity.
  • Ensure due process rights.
  • Address the root causes of immigration, “such as underdevelopment and poverty in sending countries, and seek long-term solutions.”
  • Enforce U.S. borders with “targeted, proportional and humane” measures.


“Immigrants will be able to come out of the shadows,” Kevin Appleby, director of the USCCB’s Office of Refugee and Migration Policy, said about the Senate’s bill. “That’s a positive. But this is not an easy pathway.”

New Legal Limbo?
The Senate plans to give immigrants living illegally in the U.S. since Dec. 31, 2011, a path to citizenship that begins with “resident provisional immigrant” status and leads to citizenship 13 years later, according to a Washington Post analysis.

They would have to pay an initial $500 fine, then renew their status six years later with another $500 fine; and then four years later they can apply for a green card and pay another $1,000 fine. Another three years later, they could apply for citizenship, provided they’ve taken civics lessons, know English and have maintained a clean criminal record, work history and paid their taxes.

There’s one big catch in the Senate bill: Immigrants with resident provisional status can’t apply for a green card until the Department of Homeland Security verifies that it has achieved its plans for border security.

“It’s definitely a concern,” said Diana Richardson-Vela, president and CEO of the Catholic Association for Latino Leadership. Richardson-Vela said the Senate’s path to citizenship was better than no path, however.

But she said immigrants should not have their lives put on hold indefinitely as “resident provisionals” if DHS finds its plans for border security unworkable.

“The strategies they’ve had in the past haven’t had the results,” she said.

Although Heritage opposes the Senate bill, Spalding agreed with Richardson-Vela that the issues of border security and citizenship must be dealt with separately in legislation.

“This could become much messier,” he said. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, [in legislation] to do something contingent on something else.”

Impact on American Workers

But the labor rights of existing American workers is a Catholic social issue that U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a Catholic, believes the current immigration debate has failed to address.

The Senate bill gives high-skilled workers up to 180,000 H1-B visas; low-skilled guest workers would get 75,000 W-visas by 2019, and up to 200,000 after that. Agricultural visas would rise to 337,000.

“What are we going to do about the 22 million Americans who can’t find work today?” Barletta said. “They’re always left out of the conversation, but they’re the real losers in this deal.”

“If we can stop the flow of illegal immigration, then we can have a discussion [about citizenship],” he said. He added the Senate’s bill does not stop the flow of illegal immigrants, who get exploited for labor and sex by unscrupulous businesses, criminal gangs and traffickers.

According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis released Wednesday, the Senate bill would reduce illegal immigration between 33%-50%.

Richardson-Vela, however, argued American workers and the economy will gain if illegal immigrants can bring their families here and earn a living wage. Latin-American immigrants sent $61.3 billion in 2012 back to their native families, according to reported data from the Inter-American Development Bank.

“These are people willing to work hard and pay their dues,” Richardson-Vela said. “All that money that’s being sent back will be used here and create more jobs.”

Subsidiarity Argument

Although the U.S. bishops have called for comprehensive immigration reform, Spalding raised questions about the Catholic principle of subsidiarity — the idea that matters should be handled by the competent authority closest to them.

“The fact that everything’s being centralized makes it all difficult to deal with in the future,” Spalding said. He pointed out that President Obama’s comprehensive health-care reform, the Affordable Care Act, created a massive bureaucracy that issues rules that regulates the treatments doctors can prescribe their patients and violates the Church’s conscience through the HHS contraception mandate.

Instead, Spalding suggested that a step-by-step process, a sequence of bills instead of a single bill, would provide a better and more transparent way to address the issues the U.S. bishops have raised.

“This approach strikes me as perfectly consistent with Catholic social thought,” he said.

Barletta concurred, saying the process of passing comprehensive bills left both legislators and the American people in the dark about the laws they were going to be living with.

“I don’t know any lawmaker who has the time to read a 1,200-page bill,” he said.

But Appleby said passing the Senate’s comprehensive bill, even with its current imperfections, would be better than the status quo.

“Even if this bill passes tomorrow, there’s still a lot of work that would be done over the next five to 10 years,” he said.

Border Security vs. Labor Enforcement
One border-patrol agent (a Catholic who asked that he not be identified since he is not authorized to speak with the media), expressed his own concern that too much emphasis was put on border security and not on labor enforcement.

“Wherever there’s demand for cheap, exploitable labor, somebody’s going to fill it,” he told the Register. The active-duty agent patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, and he said the U.S. demand for “cheap labor from illegal work” has fueled some injustices that he has seen in his line of work: immigrants dead in the desert, some abandoned by their guides, and women in their 20s looking for work who get sold into sex slavery.

“It has to all of a sudden be no longer beneficial for these employers to hire illegal labor,” he said. “And if the entire process of immigration was above board, there would be no room for this to happen.”

Even if Congress passes immigration reform, illegal immigrants will need encouragement to come out, according to “Catherine Styles,” a Spanish-speaking Catholic who requested this pseudonym so as not to be identified.

“They all see legal recognition as a good thing, but there is a huge amount of fear,” said Styles, who said she has worked with illegal immigrants for 15 years and with their families as a catechist at her Virginia parish. After living so long in fear of deportation, she said, “They’ve a real sense of reluctance without the guarantee it’s not going to backfire on them.”

Appleby said the current proposals on the table are at least a start for Catholics to work from. He said Catholics need to ask serious questions about the impact of U.S. policies and trade agreements, such as NAFTA, on people in Mexico and Latin America. He said building small businesses and living wages there could form part of the solution.

“I’m not saying that we have the answers,” Appleby said. “But this is something we need to examine and focus on as we move ahead with immigration reform.”

Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York. 

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