Bishops Say Immigrants’ Needs Come Before Border Security

Deal W. Hudson
November 22, 2007

The three bishops of Maryland have just released a statement on immigration, saying the right of a nation to control its borders is secondary to an immigrant’s basic needs. These three bishops – Archbishop O’Brien, Archbishop Wuerl, and Bishop Saltarelli – reiterate the policy espoused by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their program “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope.

Immigration is one of the three most important issues in the 2008 presidential election; it is the number one political issue for Hispanics, who now outnumber African-Americans in the United States.

Immigration became one of the most divisive issues in American politics after the introduction of Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ). The visa programs in the bill allowed illegal immigrants to legalize their status without leaving the United States.

The outcry of “no amnesty” for illegal immigrants resounded throughout the nation, driven by major talk-show hosts and Republican members of Congress such as Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The two GOP Congressmen introduced an immigration bill without any so-called “amnesty” provisions.

President Bush’s own immigration plan, somewhere between the two extremes, went largely unnoticed.

Within a year, on April 11, 2006, hundreds of thousands of Hispanics filled the streets of America’s cities – the Washington Post proclaimed the awakening of a “Sleeping Latino Giant.”

In the aftermath of the controversy, the Republicans, who had received an astounding 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election, were viewed, fairly or not, as the anti-immigrant party.

By the 2006 mid-term elections, Hispanic support for GOP candidates fell to 30 percent. Some political analysts have said the golden opportunity of creating a long-term coalition of Hispanic voters and the Republican Party has been squandered.

The bishops’ “Justice for Immigrants” program was launched two days before the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill. The bishops’ viewpoint and that of Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 were basically the same. Though there were a handful of Republican co-sponsors of the 2005 immigration bill, including Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, most Republicans argued the bill was too lenient in dealing with immigrants who had broken the law to enter the country.

Once again, the Republican Party was seen to be on the wrong side of a debate aggressively engaged by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It seemed like a replay of the struggle in the Reagan years between the bishops and the White House over Central American policy and the treatment of the “contras.”

Now the three Maryland bishops have issued a statement to press the point once again. Here is the key paragraph:

All people have the right to have their basic needs met in their homelands. When the means to fulfill those needs do not exist at home, people have the right to seek them abroad. At the same time, sovereign nations have the right to control their borders, provided the regulations promote the common good of our universal human family. Not surprisingly, these two rights may conflict. When they do, receiving nations with the ability to accommodate migrants are urged to respond with generosity so individuals have the opportunity to meet their basic needs and so families remain united.

In other words, when the two “rights” are in conflict – the right to secure borders and the right of a person to have basic needs met – the nations with the “ability” should respond with “generosity.”

The problem with such an argument is simple: Who decides which country has the ability? Who decides what “basic needs” are and whether they are available in the country of origin? Who decides what “generosity” is? Clearly, this argument is a prudential matter and can be argued openly without insinuating any disrespect for the bishops or their teaching office.

I witnessed a bishop give this argument on immigration to a group of Catholic businessmen and women in California a few months ago. There was not a single person in the room, as far as I could tell, who agreed with the presentation. The bishop read directly out of the material supplied by the “Justice for Immigrants” program. Upon finishing, he was immediately questioned about the position on border security. “Why can’t a country choose who can enter and who cannot?” was the question.

The answer given is contained in the paragraph above: “At the same time, sovereign nations have the right to control their borders, provided the regulations promote the common good of our universal human family.”

Again, it is a prudential issue to decide what kind of border regulations “promote the common good.” Catholics can disagree about how to secure the borders as long as they do take the “common good” into consideration. This is a difficult and divisive question, second only to the abortion issue.

When Senator Brownback first went to Iowa to campaign for the presidential nomination, he did not receive the welcome you would expect for a man with such pro-life credentials. The voters of Western Iowa were troubled that he had co-sponsored the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill, and they told him so.

At the same meeting in California, the bishop aired a video documentary created by the USCCB as a part of “Justice for Immigrants.” The documentary followed a Mexican family as they were led on foot, illegally, over the U.S. border. The film glorified the journey and gave it spiritual overtones. The audience was truly aghast that the bishops would be party to an act of breaking the law. (Yet this film is being shown in parishes throughout the United States.)

Unfortunately, the film never explains why a nation’s control of its borders is trumped by the material needs of the citizens of another country.

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