by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There are a lot of loud voices on all sides in the national conversation about undocumented immigration, but there is one thing that shouldn’t be lost in all the noise, said Father Pat Murphy, CS.
“The bottom line is that immigrants are people,” said Father Pat, animator of archdiocesan Hispanic ministry. “They’re human beings. They have the same goals that everyone else does, so try to keep the human face on [the issue].”
Although it periodically cools, the issue of undocumented immigration — sometimes also called illegal immigration — periodically flares anew.
The topic erupted again when Arizona passed a tough, new immigration law — Senate Bill 1070 and House Bill 2632 — on April 23.
The legislation, titled the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” comes at a time when residents of Southwestern states have reached new heights of frustration with issues relating to the border with Mexico, including illegal or undocumented immigration.
Although the law is only enforceable in Arizona (pending legal challenges), its passage has struck a national nerve. Many politicians and public figures — including several bishops — have spoken against the law. There have been protests in various cities.
Speaking in a joint statement issued on May 8, the bishops of the Catholic Conference of Arizona expressed concern that these new laws will deter undocumented persons from reporting crimes out of fear of deportation, and thus be further victimized.
The bishops also feared that the trespass provisions of the Arizona law would “open the door to criminalizing the presence of even children and young people brought into our country by their parents.” They believe these laws could lead to the separation of family members.
“We believe it would be far better to withdraw these bills than to risk costly and unfairly punitive enforcement,” said the bishops.
“[The law] gives law enforcement officials powers to detain and arrest individuals based on a very low legal standard, possibly leading to the profiling of individuals based upon their appearance, manner of speaking, or ethnicity,” the bishops continued. “It could lead to the wrongful questioning and arrest of U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as the division of families. . . . It certainly would lead to the rise in fear and distrust in immigrant communities, undermining the relationships between their members and law enforcement officials.”
“On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I join with the Catholic bishops of Arizona in strongly opposing the enactment and implementation of Arizona SB 1070,” said Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester, who is chairman of the USCCB Bishops’ Committee on Migration.
The bishops are not unmindful of the full spectrum of concerns expressed about undocumented immigration and border issues.
“My opinion is that the Arizona bishops — and many of the bishops across the country — are sympathetic to what people across the country are going through,” said Bill Scholl, consultant for the archdiocesan office of social justice.
“Certainly the people in Arizona have a right to be concerned and to address these problems,” he continued. “[The bishops] are very sympathetic to the frustration all states feel — that the federal government has been unable to resolve this crisis of immigration we have.”
There’s one thing, he said, that nearly everyone agrees on: The immigration system is broken.
Father Pat agreed.
“Basically, the problem is that the federal government hasn’t done anything about immigration, and now states are going to try to do stuff,” said Father Pat.
“And I think [the Arizona legislation is] a law that will be really difficult to implement,” he continued, “and can bring up all sorts of nasty reactions, nasty circumstances, and nasty situations.”
Another fear among those whose ministries serve undocumented persons — like Father Pat’s — is that other states will adopt Arizona’s approach. Failed attempts have already been made in the Kansas and Missouri legislatures to implement parts of Arizona’s law.
“Some states have already done this,” said Father Pat. “Oklahoma passed a nasty law about a year ago, and people had to leave the state.”
Many faithful Catholics are wrestling with the issues of immigration, trying to find clear and definitive answers.
“One of the things we need to encourage people to do is to inform their consciences before making decisions,” said Father Pat. “Let’s not decide on emotions. Let’s decide with what our faith tells our hearts what we need to be about.”
The church does offer guidance, but no easy answers to the questions of un-documented immigration, said Scholl. Rather, the church offers principles that establish the boundaries between which faithful Catholics must prayerfully consider the issues.
Those principles are balanced between the rights of immigrants and the rights of people in nations to establish the common good.
“Catholic social teaching states that nations have the right and the obligation to secure their borders in order to maintain the common good,” he said. “However, that right is not absolute. Particularly for wealthy nations, there is an obligation to respect the rights of the poor and vulnerable who seek to emigrate into our country, because they have rights as well.”
Because they are so vulnerable, the church has a special concern for the migrant, the refugee, and the immigrant.
“The church teaches that [persons] have a right to pursue and obtain what you need for a life in accordance with human dignity,” he said. “That doesn’t need to be provided for you, but you have a right to pursue that — food, clothing, education for your children, health care.
“You have a right to pursue those things in your own country,” he contin- ued, “but when your country has a situation where you can’t reasonably obtain those things, [a person] has a right to emigrate to another country.”
The failure of administration after administration to effectively address immigration issues has led to moral hazards that have produced several evils, including the creation of a second-class status for undocumented persons, exploitation of workers, and separation of families.
“So the church is all for the rule of law,” said Scholl. “But the church also has an obligation to speak out against unjust laws.”
The church is not in favor of open borders or unqualified amnesty. The church, instead, is seeking immigration reform that produces a win-win solution.
“The church is trying to ask how do we maintain the common good in a way that respects human rights,” said Scholl. “And how do we pursue strategies that respect the unification of families, and some common-sense, reasonable laws that everyone can follow.”
What the U.S. bishops have called for is comprehensive immigration reform, said Father Pat. This includes such things as earned legalization, enforcement, a future worker program, family unification, restoration of due process, and addressing root causes of migration — the reasons people feel compelled to leave their homes.
Catholic social teaching on immigration is not wedded to either end of the political spectrum or to a political ideology.
“Catholic social teaching is a moral framework to use to judge and determine policies,” said Scholl. “In a lot of ways, it’s the fence around the playground. You’re free to run around on the playground as your conscience dictates, but the church sets certain boundaries.”
Within this “playground,” people of good will can have legitimate disagreements. But there are boundaries. One of them is the dignity of the human person, maintained in the context of the common good.
“There is room to disagree on this issue,” said Scholl. “You can be Catholic and want to see the enforcement of the laws. That doesn’t make you a racist. But the bishops are asking us how we can welcome the stranger and maintain the common good.”
Scholl’s recommendation to Catholics is that they study the church’s teachings, pray, listen to their bishops, and challenge their friends and family to look for the win-win solution.
“We should open our hearts and minds to the bishops’ charism of the Holy Spirit and ask ourselves one simple and elegant question: What if what they say is true?” he said.