Immigration and Catholic social teaching

As Pete Sheehan’s front page story brings home this week, there are two basic levels to the immigration debate: one involving broad questions of public policy, and its overall impact on our society; the other involving real human beings, and the consequences for them not only of our public policies, but of our private responses and cultural attitudes toward their presence and their needs.

Catholics may — as on a number of public policy questions — legitimately arrive at different prudential judgments as to which immigration policies best serve the common good.

Some see undocumented immigrants as a drain on our economy — particularly during our current high unemployment — taking jobs from American workers and overburdening our schools, communities, health care facilities and social services. Others contend that working immigrants are an economic asset, as they necessarily become consumers whose needs create additional demand for goods and services, and thereby additional jobs to meet that demand.

As we observe the 11th anniversary of 9/11, we cannot ignore the very real threats that uncontrolled immigration poses to our security — from international terrorists, but also from those who come into our nation specifically to engage in criminal activity: dealing drugs, running guns, organizing gangs. While law enforcement efforts to apprehend, punish and then deport such criminal elements is vital to the protection of all Americans, it is particularly important to our immigrant communities, as these criminals generally tend to infiltrate and prey on their own immigrant populations.

At the same time, it is disingenuous to equate such a felonious criminal element with undocumented immigrants whose only “crime” is the misdemeanor of entering the country illegally — and whose reason for doing so is simply to try to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. Again, there can be differing conclusions as to how such immigration activity affects the common good, and thereby different judgments about appropriate public policies. But we ought to be able to engage this debate without the rancor and vitriol that is too often directed at people who are only trying to do what we all are called to do: provide adequately for their families.
As Catholics, our obligation is to make sure our prudential judgments with regard to immigration policy are well informed by Catholic moral and social teachings. In so doing, we should of course consider the impact of illegal immigration on our security, our culture, and our economy. But we must also keep in mind the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger, and our moral obligation to provide compassionate assistance to people in need. In that regard, public immigration policies can overlap — and sometimes conflict — with our efforts to meet human needs.

The work of our diocesan Catholic Charities described in Pete Sheehan’s story, for example, is an effort to help local children of illegal immigrants — children who have grown up in America — take advantage of President Obama’s program that allows them to apply for continued residence and work authorization.

Unfortunately, some state governments have undertaken to penalize churches and private charities for providing various forms of assistance — food, housing, health care, education — to immigrants regardless of their legal status. As we have noted before, this is every bit as much an assault on religious freedom – our right to fulfill the Gospel call to help those in need — as is the abortion/contraception mandate of the Obama administration.

As Catholics, our responsibilities on this issue are thus threefold:

We should insist that public policy deliberations on immigration be respectful of the legitimate, serious concerns — and the humanity — of all involved, and that they focus on solutions designed to best serve the common good, not to pander to various interest groups and voting blocs.
We should actively support the efforts of Catholic Charities and other private or religious agencies to provide humane assistance to immigrants in need — regardless of their legal status.

And we should oppose — vociferously — any efforts by government, at the local, state or national level, to impede such charitable good works, or to punish those who carry them out.