Immigration: Questions and Answers

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

In the fierce debate about immigration taking place in Rhode Island , a number of questions have arisen that deserve a response.

Does the Church promote and support illegal immigration?

“No. The Catholic Church does not support or encourage illegal immigration because 1) it is contrary to federal law and 2) it is not good either for society because of the presence of a large population living outside the legal structures or the migrant . . . Instead, the Church is advocating changing a broken law so that undocumented persons can obtain legal status in our country and enter the United States legally to work and support their families.” (USCCB Statement on Comprehensive Immigration Reform)

In short, illegal immigration is a bad deal for everyone – for our country and its citizens, for legal immigrants, and for those who have entered the country illegally.

By its stance on illegal immigration isn’t the Church encouraging the violation of civil laws?

No. The teaching of the Church is very clear that the just laws of legitimate authority must be obeyed. (cf: Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2234-2243) At the same time the Church explains that “the loyal collaboration [of citizens] includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.” (#2238)

In other words, civil laws are important and should be obeyed, but they are not absolute. They must serve the common good and protect human dignity. Our nation has a long tradition of civil disobedience – breaking laws for a higher purpose. And sometimes civil laws can be suspended for a specific urgent reason. Immigrants who came to our land without proper documentation did so, in most cases, for positive reasons. A recent editorial in USA Today about the state-based crackdowns on immigrants sweeping our nation said: “What’s missing is simple humanity – a recognition that the vast majority of those affected lack any malicious intent. They came not to rob banks but to improve their lives through hard work. Yet families are uprooted, and parents are separated from their kids.”

Our nation’s immigration “problem” is a result of twenty years of failing to enforce immigration laws. Our flawed policy created the fiasco we have today. It cannot be fixed overnight by the waving of a wand or the flourish of a pen. The immigration crisis will be fixed through the adoption of a thoughtful, positive and gradual process – in short, comprehensive immigration reform.

What about the “illegal immigrants” who are already here?

The demand, voiced by some, that all undocumented persons be rounded up and deported, “sent back to where they belong” is unrealistic, short-sighted and mean-spirited. Regardless of their administrative status, the immigrants are children of God, our brothers and sisters. While we wrestle with the complex legal questions surrounding their status, they have the right to decency and respect.

Pope John Paul II wrote: “Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.” (The Church in America, #65)

And just last week Pope Benedict added his formidable voice to the immigrant cause when he said to the U.S. Bishops : “I want to encourage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home.”

Undocumented persons should be placed on a deliberate path to citizenship so that they can become “legal” and productive citizens of our land.

Why is the Church involved in this discussion of public policy?

The Church has every right, indeed the obligation, to be involved in this discussion for several reasons.

First, because the immigration debate involves very significant moral issues, including: human dignity, the integrity of families, and the care of the poor. The Bishops of the United States have written: “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ . . . The Catholic community brings important assets to the political dialogue about our nation’s future.” (Faithful Citizenship, 2007)

Secondly, there’s a long tradition of religious leaders challenging political authority. It’s as old as the Prophets of Israel challenging their kings. It includes John the Baptist confronting Herod, Thomas More disobeying Henry the VIII, and Martin Luther King denouncing the legally sanctioned racism of the 1960s.

Additionally, the religious community (Catholic and others) has a legitimate voice in this debate because it invests enormous resources to provide charitable and pastoral assistance to immigrants in our community – including social services, material needs and health care – and thus reduces the obligation of the state to provide the same services (at a higher cost) to people in need.

Are Catholics required to agree with the position of Church leaders on this issue?

No . . . at least not regarding specific policies or legislation. The current debate involves practical, prudential judgments about which people of goodwill can disagree.

However, when two popes, the Bishops of the United States collectively, the local bishop and an unprecedented coalition of religious leaders throughout the state voice their heartfelt concerns – doesn’t it seem reasonable that members of the Church and other citizens would at least pause to think about their message?

While Catholics are free to disagree on particular immigration policies and legislation, even that disagreement must be circumscribed by civility and charity. What we are not free to do when we speak about immigrants, legal or otherwise, is to violate the law of love so clearly proclaimed by Jesus Christ: “Whatsoever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40) And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk 10:27) And again, “This I command you: love one another.” (Jn 15:17)

Plenty of food for thought there, for all of us, as the immigration debate continues.