By James J. Bacik
In 2005, Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy launched a bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation. This effort to reform our broken immigration system failed, as have subsequent attempts. Noteworthy was the 2013 bill sponsored by the bipartisan Gang of Eight that passed the Senate but never got a vote by the House. It provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States as well as provisions for increased border security and more effective tracking of those holding visas.
In recent decades, the American bishops have addressed the immigration issue on a number of occasions. In their 2000 Pastoral Letter, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us,” the bishops developed the theme of unity in diversity, encouraging Church members to welcome new immigrants while respecting their cultures and recognizing their contributions. To do this effectively, we need a “profound conversion” that rejects the “anti-immigration stance” as well as the “nativism, ethnocentricity and racism that continue to reassert themselves in our communities.”
Christian communities must welcome immigrants and empower them to participate fully, creating a community of unity in diversity. In a spirit of solidarity with immigrants, we should advocate for laws that respect their human rights and preserve the unity of their families. The bishops support policies that extend to the immigrants and refugees “social services, citizenship classes, improved housing, decent wages, better medical attention and appropriate educational opportunities.” They also call for “legalization opportunities for the maximum number of undocumented persons, particularly those who have built equities and otherwise contributed to their communities.”
In their 2003 Pastoral Letter, “Strangers No Longer,” the American bishops joined their Mexican counterparts in proposing general principles, drawn from Catholic Social Teaching, to guide discussion of immigration issues. In general, the pastoral recognizes the “right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good” as well as the “right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights.” Contending that these two teachings complement each other, the bishops insist that some persons suffering from poverty and persecution must migrate to support and protect themselves, and that “nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible.” More specifically, developed nations, which have the ability to protect their residents, have a “stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” Given the stark reality that migrants are often subject to harsh and punitive treatment, we need government policies that respect their fundamental human dignity and do not intensify their suffering.
In their 2020 election guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops declare: “Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a broad and firm legislative program with a path to citizenship” (n81). Reform should also include a “work program that provides adequate protections and just wages” as well as policies that reunify separated families and address the “root causes of migration” (n81).
Fixing our broken immigration system is an extremely complex political challenge, calling for bipartisan cooperation and prudent compromise. Catholic Social Teaching does not claim to have concrete solutions to specific problems, but it does provide helpful religious perspectives and moral principles to voters deciding which candidates are best qualified to find practical solutions to our flawed system.
What aspect of Catholic Social Teaching is most helpful to me as I reflect on the immigration issue?