My husband and I spent hours in a gray waiting room to prove to the United States government that we were actually married. Since marriage is one of the sure ways to get a Green Card, many are more than willing to pay for a U.S. citizen to marry them, go through the process, get the citizenship and then get a divorce.
There were pictures on the wall, and more than enough chairs for everyone. I could not say the same thing for other visa process centers I had been. Couples went in and out, some nervous, some confident, while my husband got more and more impatient by the minute. See, he was in the Air Force then, was a Marine before, and by all accounts an upstanding citizen who had to pay thousands of dollars, fill out countless forms and wait for years before his wife can become part of the country he loved.
Both of us, however, were more than willing to jump through the hoops, answer the same question dozens of times, and write check after check to the Department of Homeland Security, because we were first and foremost Catholics who would not break just laws.
The thing is I had no right to be in the United States. My husband did, but I was just one of millions who wanted to change their lives for the better. My reason to seek permanent residency was marriage. My life was not in danger. I was an immigrant, not a refugee. As such, I was bound by the creed I professed to respect the laws of my home or host country.
I have two sons. The younger one loves agitating the older one, who sometimes punches or kicks in response. When the inevitable tears appear, I, as their authority, chastise them both. The older should know better than kicking his brother, because regardless of what the younger one said or did, as the stronger party, his obligations are different. The younger one also would find himself in the corner or deprived of some beloved activity, because he should not have exasperated his brother. The Kingdom of God functions like the domestic church. There are a stronger and more privileged ones who sometimes abuse that strength. There are also those who willingly or unwillingly trespass boundaries.
Our shepherds should chastise those who use their power over the weak in an unjust manner. However, it should not end there. In the current argument within Catholic circles, there are those who only wish to correct the older brother and there are those who insist that all fault lies on the younger brother. Neither is completely true, and those who have spiritual leadership should step out of the political agenda to hold the hands of both children to guide them to truth.
Constant, one-sided chastisement alienates the older brother who is willing to obey, but perceives the situation as unjust when the younger brother goes uncorrected simply as a consequence of his weakness. While most devout Catholics instinctively object to children being taken away from their parents, the emphasis from our shepherds that talk about only one side of the equation actually hinder the efforts and the support toward a better immigration system.
An illegal immigrant has broken a law, but is not a common criminal whose child needs to be removed. These families come to the U.S. because of the promise of a better life, and as the older brother, the U.S. should treat them in accordance with human dignity every breathing soul deserves.
At the same time, is it irresponsible to criticize only the U.S. government, and thus inadvertently encourage those who are contemplating to break the law to enter a country illegally? Imagine you were struggling to make ends meet with a prospect of a half-decent job across the border. You can’t provide for your family, but if you could pay a coyote a few thousand dollars, life could be much better for you, your wife and your children. After all, the media is abuzz with talks of reform and amnesty and the bishops only ever talk about how bad the government is. With every passing day, you are inclined to think that you are not culpable, that you have a right. In addition, you have a hope and a promise to a better life, regardless of how false that hope and how empty that promise is.
Then, of course, there are those who are more than willing to take advantage of the desperation of the immigrant and the laxity of the host country. As I traveled from Turkey to several European countries and eventually the United States, quite a few people offered me money to give false witness to authorities so that they could enter. In England, I served many Tutsis who fled Rwanda to save their lives, only to end up living next to Hutus who pretended to be Tutsis. The system is imperfect. Sin is real. No amount of sugarcoating and wishful thinking will make criminals disappear.
Concerning the complex issue of immigration, those who are charged with guiding us to Heaven should not only deal with the temporal problems that arise from a country’s immigration laws, but also with spiritual questions that stem from breaking the law and disobedience to authorities.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-16)
Admonishing both sides by calling out injustices and disobedience, the Catholic Church should rise above the political aspirations of those who are manipulating a less-than-ideal situation. By giving a more accurate picture of the problem, the Church has the singular opportunity to provide a respectful and unbiased vision where human dignity and just laws are respected equally.
The patron saint of immigrant St. Frances Xavier Cabrini said:
The world is poisoned with erroneous theories, and needs to be taught sane doctrines, but it is difficult to straighten what has become crooked.
She was right, of course. The Catholic Church has the obligation to help people see through erroneous theories so that we can reach sanity. In the case of immigration, the line had become so crooked that many suffer and lose hope in the steadfastness and leadership of the Church. Let us swim against the current of left and right, and dare to stand up. As little Christs, all of us, immigrants and citizens alike, are bound by the same directive:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men. (Titus 3:1)