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Immigration reform: What the Catholic Church knows
By Donald Kerwin

CLINIC - Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (www.cliniclegal.org)

The Catholic Church has placed itself in the maelstrom of the U.S. debate on immigration. In May 2005, the U.S. bishops – at a press conference highlighted by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Bishop James Tamayo and the leaders of a coalition of national Catholic agencies – kicked off the national “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope.”

WORKERS DEMONSTRATE IN TIMES SQUARE DURING IMMIGRATION RALLY --Workers demonstrate near New York's Times Square May 1, as they take part in what was called
WORKERS DEMONSTRATE IN TIMES SQUARE DURING IMMIGRATION RALLY --Workers demonstrate near New York's Times Square May 1, as they take part in what was called "A Day Without Immigrants," a nationwide protest staged by immigrant rights advocates to call for changes in U.S. immigration law. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Nearly 80 dioceses have initiated local “Justice for Immigrants” campaigns, and dozens of bishops, national Catholic agencies and religious communities have issued pro-immigrant statements. On Ash Wednesday of this year, Cardinal Roger Mahoney announced that he would instruct Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to ignore provisions in a House-passed “enforcement only” bill (H.R. 4437) – were they to pass – that would make it a crime to “assist” the undocumented.

The Catholic Church has played a central role in the immigrant-led protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. It has encouraged Catholics to participate in them, provided bishops and priests as speakers, and (as a general matter) acted as a mediating agency, advocating the interests of its newcomer members on immigration reform.

Why does the Catholic Church care so much about immigration reform? The explanation lies in the church’s view of itself as a pilgrim people in a pilgrim church. It sees the holy family – in their flight to Egypt – as the archetypal refugee family. It recalls the biblical exodus and exile, the itinerant ministry of Jesus, and its missionary tradition. It welcomes the stranger as a gospel imperative.

In February 2003, the U.S. and Mexican bishops released “Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope,” an historic pastoral statement on the need for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. “Strangers No Longer” teaches that persons have the right not to have to migrate; that is, they should be able to lead fully human lives in their countries of birth. However, when this is impossible – whether due to extreme poverty or persecution – they have a right to migrate, and nations have a duty to receive them. Two fundamental strands of the church’s mission – protecting the dignity of all and gathering into one God’s scattered children – come together in its ministry to migrants and newcomers.

As a matter of public policy, the Catholic Church does not support open borders, illegal immigration or even “amnesty” in the sense of a blanket grant of legal status to the undocumented. It believes that nations have a legitimate responsibility to promote the common good by denying admission to certain migrants and by regulating the flow of all those who are seeking to enter.

However, it sees the current immigration system – while generous in many respects – as badly in need of reform. On this, few would disagree. It has been particularly offended by the deaths of nearly 500 (mostly economic) migrants each year along the U.S.-Mexico border, the growth of human smuggling rings, the disconnect between U.S. labor needs, trade policies and immigration admission levels, and delays in family reunification (for those legally eligible to immigrate) that can span decades.

Criminal prosecution and deportation do not offer a viable, much less a humane, approach to the undocumented who often live in “mixed-status” families and who represent five percent of the U.S. work-force. Since we eat the vegetables that immigrants pick, wear the clothes they sew, and live in the homes they build, we might be viewed as complicit in their presence here and (in many cases) in their exploitation. To do nothing would be to facilitate the growth of a population of second-class, non-citizens with limited rights, prospects or security. As the U.S. bishops put it in 1986: “It is against the common good and unacceptable to have a double society, one visible with rights and one invisible without rights – a voiceless underground of undocumented persons.”

The question becomes: how to fix the current system? The U.S. bishops support a comprehensive approach. They believe that “enforcement only” will exacerbate the current crisis. As evidence, they point out that a four-fold increase in border control funding over the last 12 years has been accompanied by a quadrupling of the U.S. undocumented population.

The “Justice for Immigrants” campaign supports increased development in immigrant-sending countries; allowing necessary undocumented workers to earn the right to remain (permanently) through their labor, good moral character, and payment of a fine (a proportional punishment); and expansion of avenues for employment- and family-based immigration. It opposes “reform” that would turn otherwise law-abiding people into felons and would potentially criminalize acts of charity. While the authors of the House bill have disavowed this intention, they will not be the ones enforcing the bill.

As a result of its mobilization in support of positive reform, the church has been accused of everything from “treason,” to violating its tax-exempt status, to “trolling” for new (immigrant) members, to failing to show proper humility in light of the sexual abuse scandal. Above all, it has been criticized for inserting itself in a political issue on which it has ...

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