The Immigration Debate
Recently I engaged in a debate with John Zmirak on Inside Catholic regarding the status of Catholicism in modern America. Those who want to try and sort out the back and forth can go here to follow the exchange.
Particularly we disagree on the issue of immigration, but it seems there is a more fundamental disagreement as well. John was originally going to indirectly reply to some of my comments with another article on IC, but instead published his thoughts in Taki’s Magazine. Although he doesn’t mention me by name, he did say that our exchanged inspired him to write what he did.
The charges he levels against me, or at least those he assumes think like me, are amusing in their wild inaccuracy. The reader can examine for him or herself their specifics; the primary purpose of the second half of this polemic is to portray us as those who would sacrifice our children’s future out of a desire to extend mercy and charity to the undocumented workers that have come to our country seeking to support their own families.
My hope is that his final screed against the “modern American liberal” was intended for the faithless, a group distinct from those such as myself who are openly devout Catholics who simply disagree with his hierarchy of values.
The crux of the issue is indeed this hierarchy of values, this list of moral priorities that we hold as Christians and as Catholics. For Mr. Zmirak, family and country are at the top of the list; for me, unconditional charity and mercy for the least of our brothers and sisters are at the top. In their right order these values are not in conflict, but when they are put out of order everything becomes confused.
I believe that what I call “my” hierarchy of values is indeed the one already evident in the Gospels, the Catholic tradition, and modern Catholic social teaching. I didn’t invent my priorities; I radically altered them as I decided to follow Christ and join His Church.
In the first place it is undeniable that, according to the Gospels, we will be judged by Christ at the end of the world on the basis of how we treated the least of our brothers. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Christ identifies Himself with every type of needy person: the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick, and there is no reason to assume that the list is limited to these alone. With the inclusion of the prisoner, it is important to see that even “law breakers” are deserving of compassion and mercy (which is not the same as saying there should be no law or no consequence for violating it; more on that below).
Is it possible to rationalize one’s way out of this serious obligation? If it is, I can’t see how, and even if could, I can’t see why I or anyone else should want to. Now the devil, as they say, is in the details. We may disagree as to how best extend this mercy to our brothers and sisters. But what seems to me to be the first critical point of agreement is that we should always begin with is that we are dealing with human beings that have an inherent right to exist.
If we always keep this in mind, and if we always strive to see Christ in every needy person, we cannot fail to do our best to devise humane solutions to social problems. On this point our recent Holy Fathers have agreed. Mr. Zmirak’s attitude simply cannot be reconciled with, for instance, what John Paul II said so clearly on World Migration Day in 1996:
“The first way to help [illegal immigrants] is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to State law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence.”
Imagine that – the very first thing we are to do is to listen. Not to react, not to horde, not to chase away, but to listen. The very next thing we must do is provide them with the necessary means of subsistence. There is nothing ambiguous here. Then there is a specifically Catholic duty the Pope outlines with respect to illegal immigrants as well:
“In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters.”
Mr. Zmirak sneers at the Catholic social principle of solidarity with respect to immigration, citing it as “dangerous” when it means what no one, least of all myself, has ever suggested: forcing one’s children to go to a school that doesn’t meet their standards. This is not how solidarity is ever to be understood. That being said, it most certainly is to be extended even to the illegal immigrant:
“Solidarity means taking responsibility for those in trouble. For Christians, the migrant is not merely an individual to be respected in accordance with the norms established by law, but a person whose presence challenges them and whose needs become an obligation for their responsibility. “What have you done to your brother?” (cf. Gn 4:9). The answer should not be limited to what is imposed by law, but should be made in the manner of solidarity.” (emphasis added)
By what right therefore does Mr. Zmirak begin hurling around proclamations that begin with “we may not”, when it is clear that he he is either unfamiliar or indifferent to statements made about this subject by the highest authorities in the Church?
Like the leftists who wish to circumvent Catholic teaching on sexuality and life issues out of a regard for what is practical, a false assumption of “how things really are”, Zmirak and those who share his views do the same with respect to immigration policy. Pope Benedict recently took a lot of heat over the AIDS controversy in Africa, but even before that Republican politicians such as Tom Trancredo were attacking him over his views on immigration, which are similar to JP II’s.
Does the Church call for open boarders or some other disastrous policy in response to the immigration problem? Of course not. The USCCB has clearly stated in its own documents on immigration that boarder control is not a sin, and in fact is a duty of the State. I agree. At some point there must have been some confusion over what my policy aims are, since I do not oppose border control, especially if it is done in conjunction with policies that will address the root causes of illegal immigration.
The critical question is what we are to do with the immigrants who are already here, and those that may come here illegally in the future, since totally sealed boarders and mass deportations are an impossible fantasy – and would present a moral hazard even if they were not. To me the answer is clear: we are to meet the human needs presented before us with mercy and charity, and nothing else.
It is not immoral to impose penalties for violating immigration law, but the punishment must fit the crime; my solution is fines that can be paid out over time or other forms of restitution, and in accordance with what the Church has firmly taught, never any punishment that would break up a family and leave them destitute. This has nothing to do with long-term policies to control the flow of immigration, though as we formulate those we still have to begin from that fundamental standpoint of the human person.
If the argument is that we are absolutely being forced to choose between our families survival and welcoming the stranger, then I reject that argument as a false premise. I seriously doubt that Mr. Zmirak’s family is living in a cardboard box because an illegal immigrant took a job from him, though if I am wrong I will certainly apologize for the erroneous assumption.
What is really at stake is an “American way of life” that is several times wealthier than anyone else’s way of life anywhere in the world. I don’t accept that illegal immigration poses a serious threat to American wages for many reasons I won’t go into here. But let’s say for the sake of argument that it might mean more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fewer trips to the restaurant. It might mean shopping at Wal-Mart for clothes instead of The Gap. It might mean any downward adjustment in lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean destitution or homelessness.
We must therefore keep in mind what John Paul II wrote elsewhere, and here, he only echoed with all previous Pontiffs writing on social questions had argued:
“This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor — be they individuals or nations — need to be provided with realistic opportunities. Creating such conditions calls for a concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort which also involves sacrificing the positions of income and of power enjoyed by the more developed economies.
This may mean making important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all the peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources” (Centesimus Annus, 52)
Nowhere have I seen the Popes even consider as valid the argument that extending mercy and charity to the illegal immigrant, or even this more general call for sacrifice on the part of the wealthy nations, conflicts with one’s obligations to one’s family. If it did, we may presume they wouldn’t have said such things to begin with.