Do the Nebraska Bishops Want Open Borders?

Deal W. Hudson
February 26, 2009

Early in the morning of December 12, 2006, 25 unmarked cars filled with federal agents pulled up in front of the Swift & Co. plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, to arrest illegal immigrants. “Operation Wagon Train” was part of a six-state effort to crack down on Swift, which was known to be employing undocumented workers at its meat-packing plants.

Swift was not charged with breaking any laws, but an undisclosed number of its Hispanic employees were arrested and taken to jail.

The three bishops of Nebraska – William Dendinger, Fabian Bruskewitz, and Elden Curtiss – reference that enforcement raid at the beginning of their pastoral letter titled, “Immigration: A Call to Be Patient, Hospitable and Active for Reform,” issued last month.

They admit at the start that the topic of immigration is “often identified with unauthorized entry into or presence in the United States,” and as such is a “subject of intensely felt concern and frustration.”

Further, the bishops tell us that Nebraska is one of the top ten states where immigration is on the rise (35,000 to 50,000 immigrants reside in the state). This influx, they admit, has led to “profound changes” in many communities, and particularly in Catholic parishes:

Often, the local church becomes an anchor for immigrant families and refugees, thus requiring a balancing of social and cultural differences.

The Nebraska bishops are bold in the face of this controversy, saying that immigration actually “presents opportunities” for Catholics: “understanding,” “personal growth,” “communication and dialogue,” “outreach, charity, and hospitality,” and “spiritual enrichment and a strengthening of faith in God’s divine plan for all humanity.”

Of course, it’s tough selling such intangibles to citizens deeply concerned about the cost of maintaining schools and hospitals that are already struggling to provide services to legal residents.

The debate over immigration exploded in 2005. Fueled by mass demonstrations and the consternation of conservative talk-radio hosts, this issue divided the nation and reversed the 2004 gains made by the GOP with Hispanic voters. The U.S. Catholic bishops came out strongly on the side of “welcoming” the immigrants, launching a Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform. (The Vatican and the USCCB were predictably accused of using Hispanics as “pawns” in an effort to increase their power in the United States.)

So, do the Nebraska bishops bring anything new to this debate? Yes and no. Their arguments are the same as those found in the 2003 pastoral letter written by the U.S. bishops and the bishops of Mexico, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” That’s unfortunate, as this approach pits the right of an immigrant to cross borders out of “economic necessity” against the right of a nation to “control its borders.” These conflicting rights are mediated by the principle that wealthier nations must accept their “greater level of obligation” to accommodate those entering their countries in search of work. Given the same set of facts, prudential judgments made on this basis will differ widely.

Nevertheless, the Nebraska bishops should be commended for sending out teams to conduct listening sessions with both native Nebraskans and the immigrants themselves. As a result, their pastoral letter neither romanticizes the plight of the immigrant nor demonizes those who care about the rule of law:

Those who express, emphasize, and even prioritize their concern about illegal immigration and the rule of law… are not being unjust or immoral or ‘un-Christian.’ Indeed, patriotism and respect for the rule of law are virtues.

The bishops argue – and not convincingly – that the solution to the problem is comprehensive immigration reform that both receive immigrants and respects our laws. After this reform, there would be “no reason to use terms such as ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal.’ All newly arrived immigrants will have legal status, having attained such in accordance with a rational, just, and humane policy and process, based upon proper regard for the security, economic capacity, and common good of the nation.”

Unfortunately, Bishops Curtiss, Bruskewitz, and Dendinger never explain how immigration reform will treat the Mexicans who continue to sneak across the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California borders. How are they to be received in a manner that respects our laws? Are the bishops implying that the laws against clandestine border crossings should be eliminated – that we should have open borders? Their letter does not say.

Perhaps they are simply arguing that lowering the borders and allowing more workers to enter the country will slow the flow of those who arrive illegally. Fair enough. But it is clear that the Southwestern states want to decrease substantially the numbers who are crossing the Mexican border. Illegal entry will remain a problem, and the bishops are clearly uncomfortable with any concerted effort to find illegals and return them to their country of origin.

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