My Ideas on Immigration

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I was greeting people following a parish event, recently, when an elderly lady accosted me and said, rather abruptly, “You’ve got to change your ideas on immigration.” Having been caught off guard a little, I responded, simply, “That’s not going to happen, ma’am, but hope you have a good day.”

While I felt that the timing of the lady’s stealth attack was inappropriate, she succeeded in making me think about my “ideas on immigration.”

First, I remain convinced that Governor Carcieri’s executive order on immigration was unnecessary and even, harmful. Of course that’s a practical, prudential judgment about which reasonable people can readily disagree.

While I might not even strenuously object to any of the discreet parts of the executive order, the consequences of the Governor’s action have to be evaluated as a whole. I can’t think of one good thing the Governor’s order has accomplished for our state. On the contrary it has frightened the immigrant community – documented and undocumented – raised the rhetoric on this emotional issue to unhealthy levels, and divided the citizens of our state, one against another.

I can’t help but wonder – if the Governor had it to do all over again – if he’d still issue the executive order, or perhaps handle it a little bit differently. His executive order was a mistake, an out-of-character initiative of a good and sensible man.

On a positive note for our local community, it’s most encouraging that for over a year now the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) folks have refrained from executing any more large-scale workplace raids. The raids were awful events – terrorizing the immigrant community and sometimes leading to the separation of family members, even children. Since the raids, however, local representatives of ICE have been very accommodating and helpful, readily available to the Church and community for information and consultation.

My second “idea” on immigration is that our nation needs comprehensive immigration reform. Almost no one is happy with the status quo, but the only way to address that unhappiness is by changing the laws and fixing the system. Fair and comprehensive immigration reform would include tightening our national borders, simplifying the process of legal immigration, and placing the undocumented immigrants who are already here on a reasonable path of legalization.

This approach isn’t mine alone of course. Many other religious, political and community leaders have expressed the same hope. The Bishops of the United States have written, “The Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ requires Catholics to care for and stand with immigrants, both documented and undocumented, including immigrant children. Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system.” (Faithful Citizenship, #83)

It’s really disappointing that President Obama hasn’t made immigration reform one of his first priorities. And it’s equally disappointing that the members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation – Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Kennedy and Langevin – haven’t assumed any leadership on the issue. Let’s hope and pray that they’ll do so in the near future.

My third “idea” on immigration is that we have to treat the undocumented immigrants with dignity, respect and compassion. As Pope John Paul II wrote, “Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.” (The Church in America, #65)

It’s true that “illegal immigrants” ignored the law in coming to our nation, and that’s wrong. But the law of love, given to us by Christ, supersedes the laws of any nation, especially when those laws are unjust or unenforceable.

Undocumented immigrants came to our country because a broken system enabled them, even sometimes enticed them, to do so. And now that they’re here, we’ve turned against them. As a result, undocumented immigrants find themselves in a real catch-22.

For example, we complain that the undocumented immigrants are “illegal” but we make it nearly impossible for them to become “legal.” We complain that they don’t work and pay taxes, but through burdensome and unreliable programs like e-verify, we make it difficult for them to find meaningful and stable employment. And we complain that they overload our schools and hospitals, but our discriminatory attitude keeps them in the shadows, discouraging them from stepping forward to assume a more responsible and productive role in our society.

I recognize that the immigration issue is very complex and emotional, and I certainly don’t want to overlook or discount the strong feelings of those on the other side of the question. But, if it’s to be productive, the public debate has to be reasonable and civil.

In the end, for my own guidance on the topic, I look to the words of Jesus who said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt 25:35) Jesus didn’t talk about a “legal stranger” or a “properly documented stranger” – simply a “stranger.” And the Lord tells me that my final judgment will be based on welcoming the stranger. All I know is that when I’m standing before the Judge, I absolutely want to be on the right side of the issue.