Sunday, March 5, 2017

Brotherhood and Borders

From pulpits across America sermons and homilies exhort parishioners to fulfill their Christian responsibilities toward migrants whether they are immigrants (legal or illegal) or refugees.  The message focuses appropriately on treating the migrant with dignity, but often fails to address the responsibility and authority of government to regulate migration for the common good of citizens.  Clergy could better inform parishioners of the righteousness of both of these potentially competing interests so that they may balance them appropriately.

Christian faith communities generally accept two major principles regarding migration.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instructs Catholics to, “treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself.” The Bishops and other faith leaders, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), also recognize “the right and responsibility of the U.S. to maintain our country’s borders.”

Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” is the foundation of the Christian obligation towards the migrant.  Other Bible passages are often cited in this regard, to include: "You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lv 19:33-34).

The Catholic Catechism provides the clearest statement on the second principle:  "Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens."

Religious leaders often issue policy and pastoral guidance that can be very detailed regarding these issues such as the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Outline of General Assembly Policy related to Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America, and the Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Catholic Church's Position On Immigration Reform.

The pastoral guidance of these types of documents can go beyond religious counsel.   They often contain policy recommendations and can advocate very specific and controversial actions.  Though draped in the overall principles of Christian faith, these policy statements express much that is political policy advocacy.

The religious leaders who write these policy statements are not immune to the influences of culture and politics.  As a result, when they venture beyond the religious to political and government policy their personal and political biases and institutional pressures bleed through.

Beyond clear exhortations of Christian responsibility to treat the migrant (of all kinds) within our borders with love and compassion, and to be generous in opening ourselves “to those fleeing war and persecution, famine and economic distress,” the policy recommendations of faith leaders are not sacrosanct.   Faithful Christians can fully embrace their Christian responsibility toward the migrant while developing and supporting valid policy solutions regulating migration different from those advocated by church leaders.

The immigration debate in the country has grown unnecessarily contentious because many have adopted and defend one or the other of these two principles, but not both.   No solution will result from this contentiousness.  A merciful heart and a strong sense of responsibility to protect the common good are all that is needed to resolve this issue in the interest of all.

For the common good our immigration laws must be clear and consistently enforced in the interests of citizens: secure the border, implement real visa tracking, emphasize assimilation, aggressively deport those who have broken the law, and modify birthright citizenship to stop its enticement.

For those who have entered the country illegally and have broken no laws except their entry there should be mercy, but a penalty to pay for that violation in the interest of asserting the rule of law.  Children who were brought illegally into the country should be allowed to remain and become citizens. Adults who entered illegally should be allowed to remain, but in a special category status that never allows citizenship, voting rights, or non-contributory government financial benefits.


  1. Why should we permit those who have entered the country illegally, but have committed no crime beyond entry, to remain as permanent residents?
    The answer in a nutshell is responsibility and accountability.
    The reason for allowing the illegal immigrant to remain, but restricting them to permanent resident status and denying them citizenship, voting rights, and access to non-contributory financial government benefits, is to hold them accountable for the illegal entry and to reaffirm the rule of law.
    But why must we let them remain in the first place? Why shouldn’t they just be deported? This is the other side of the coin that is a common refrain. The reason is again responsibility.
    Our country sent an inconsistent message that in fact encouraged and even incentivized people to enter and remain in the country illegally. We must take responsibility for that.
    The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 stands as the example for immigration reform today. The same issues faced today were to be addressed in a comprehensive immigration reform under President Ronald Reagan. It provided citizenship to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants and set forth a system of controls intended to reduce dramatically the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. The authorized controls included greater border security and interior enforcement and made knowingly hiring illegal immigrants a crime.
    The 3 million were legalized but the system of controls was not implemented. The result is clear today with over 11 million new illegal immigrants reportedly in the country.
    Failure to implement and enforce the controls of the 1986 Act is only part of the reason for the explosion of illegal immigration. In addition to that failure to send a clear message the inconsistency was amplified by cultural and economic signals that not only removed barriers but even incentivized illegal entry.
    Teaching in foreign languages, mandating non-English government documents, providing interpreters, legal assistance, public housing, food stamps (SNAP), in state tuition, Medicaid, and other forms of benefits, send a message to come.
    Catch and release at the border, failure to track Visa overstays, failure to coordinate (or even state and local refusal) ICE and local law enforcement activities and states offering drivers licenses says come.
    Establishing and promoting sanctuary movements says come.
    Conflating legal immigration and illegal immigration and omitting illegal status from crime reports and the media, or banning language that accurately indicates status says come.
    Hiring a landscaper, roofer, nanny or any kind of domestic help for personal gain who is an illegal immigrant says come.
    Arresting illegal alien employees during raids but not the owner of the company says come.
    The country has sent a message that is ambiguous at best and incentivizing at worst. We have to take responsibility for those actions.

  2. Because of the failed history of the 1986 Act with regard to controls there will be no legalization process without evidence of enforcement of existing law and funding and execution of programs to stop illegal immigration. Many citizens were skeptical of the 1986 Act. They are now cynics. They have no faith in their government in this regard. They will demand proof of effective controls before consenting to a legalization process.

    Ironically, President Trump, castigated for his statements on immigration, is actually doing more to enable legalization by building a border wall and prioritizing enforcement as the necessary precedent for that to occur.

    Those who advocate for the protection of the illegal immigrant should recognize that the policies and programs they have advocated and apparently have decided to double-down on are in fact the obstacle to their goal – legalized status.

    There will be no legalization without strict controls and the removal of the incentives listed above. Those who oppose the controls and ending incentives make legalization impossible.

    On the other hand controls can be implemented without any promise of legalization. Think about it.

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