June 25, 2010


Welcome the stranger

Arizona’s immigration law, due to take effect near the end of July, shows the necessity for the U.S. Congress to pass federal laws that will make it possible for immigrants to live in the United States, or to work here, and do it legally.

Arizona’s law will require all law enforcement officers in the state to determine the immigration status of anyone “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”

It is difficult to see how the law could be considered anything other than anti-Latino. Certainly, Latinos see it that way and reports indicate that many Latinos who are also U.S. citizens are moving out of Arizona—perhaps exactly what Arizona’s legislature intended.

The Obama administration and numerous others have seen the injustice in the law. Some cities, including Bloomington, have urged a boycott of Arizona. Nevertheless, polls report that about 60 percent of Americans support the law. There is evidence that that includes most Catholics, despite the Church’s teachings about immigration.

That teaching begins with Christ’s command to “welcome the stranger,” as the Catholic bishops of Indiana wrote about in their 2007 pastoral letter “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Meeting Christ in New Neighbors” (see www.archindy.org/archbishop/pastoral-2007.html). It was not a new command since the Old Testament admonished the Jews to care for the aliens in their midst because they, too, were once aliens in the land of Egypt.

But Jesus ranked welcoming the stranger with feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. He said that those who don’t do that “will go off to eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46).

With July 4, Independence Day, approaching, we might recall Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that all people have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Surely the pursuit of happiness includes the right to do what is necessary to feed your family if that can’t be done where you live.

The Catholic Church considers the right to migrate among the most basic rights, close to the right to life. However, it is not an absolute right. Governments may pass laws regulating migration. The problem today is that our immigration laws are not just. Catholic theology has always taught that unjust laws must not be obeyed.

We sometimes hear people say, “My ancestors came here legally.” Usually, they did so before there were restrictive immigration laws. Those who came through Ellis Island, for example, had only to pass a physical exam and have $15. Today, it often takes 10 years or more for a person to enter the U.S. legally.

There will be a supply of illegal immigrants as long as there is a demand for them, and U.S. companies do demand them. The workers would like to come here legally, but today there are only 5,000 permanent visas each year for unskilled laborers. As many as 300,000 undocumented workers are in the workforce. U.S. companies that require unskilled labor suffer when they can’t get them, and that usually affects all of us because our economy is so interconnected.

The U.S. bishops are among those who are urging reform of our immigration laws. With the country so divided on this issue, reform will be difficult but injustice will continue until such laws are passed.

The bishops are not urging amnesty for the illegal aliens now in the country—perhaps as many as 12 million people. Amnesty means granting a benefit without anything in return, and the bishops would require those in the country illegally to register with the government, pay whatever fine reform laws would set, learn English, and wait for a chance for citizenship.

There must also be a more realistic number of visas for unskilled migrant laborers and the opportunity for families to enter the United States legally without having to wait for years. When your children are suffering from malnutrition because of poverty, you simply can’t wait years. You are driven to risk the perils associated with coming here illegally.

For those people who are opposed to allowing more immigrants into the United States under any circumstance, how about supporting more development aid to the countries from which they are coming? That would be the best long-term solution: make it possible for people to stay in their countries while supporting their families.

—John F. Fink

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