April 7, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Catholic social teaching obliges us
to seek justice for newcomers

The controversy around the immigration situation in our country is as painful as it is complex.

On the one hand, it is true that to condone breaking the law of the land can in fact weaken, if not undermine, a country’s legal system. It is objectively wrong to break the law.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that immigrants are illegally crossing the U.S. border because employers are welcoming them and are quite willing to hire them. Employers have told me that without these workers their enterprise cannot survive. Employers tell me that the immigrants working for them are reliable and hard workers, willing to go the extra mile.

If one is to evaluate the illegal reality of the immigration situation we face, another question needs to be raised. In view of the fact that the illegality of a massive immigration movement has been occurring for years, why have our government leaders looked the other way—until now?

In fairness, it needs to be said that welcoming employers and our government’s benign neglect in enforcing the law have, in fact, encouraged illegal immigration.

Arguably, the law has been rendered moot for years. I believe that under these circumstances, it is doubtful that those who have crossed our borders illegally have reason to feel morally culpable.

Meanwhile, we have a large population of reliable and hardworking people who are a substantial factor in the development of the U.S. economy, so much so that their sudden departure from the United States would create an economic crisis.

Immigrants contribute to the economic vitality of our country. Nearly 60 percent of newly created jobs between 1996 and 2000 were filled by immigrants; these rates were higher for service and construction jobs.

Many immigrants work in professional highly skilled jobs, while others perform the often thankless necessary work that serves the common good and benefits us all. A study conducted by the Urban Institute found that immigrants paid $70.3 billion in taxes per year and received only $42.9 billon in services.

The fear of terrorists entering our country is infused into the debate about security of our borders, especially our southern border. Has any data been provided that would indicate this has been an avenue for terrorists? Will building a wall be an effective deterrent?

I believe we need to ask ourselves why people leave their homes to risk their lives to cross our southern border. The conditions that compel them are desperate: The immigrants of today need opportunities to provide for the utter necessities of life for themselves and their families.

Arguably, most of our ancestors came to this country for the same reasons. Catholic social teaching obliges us to seek justice for newcomers. Our history as a faith community in the United States has been as an immigrant Church in an immigrant nation. By 1920, immigrants constituted 75 percent of U.S. Catholics.

These were our ancestors. In response, the Church created, adapted or expanded ministries to meet the needs of this immigrant population.

The Church’s biblical experience of migration has taught us to empathize with migrants. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were migrants. Jesus was born in a manger on a journey, he and his family fled to Egypt, and in his ministry “he had nowhere to lay his head.” We have been taught by him to seek him in the faces of migrants and to welcome the stranger.

As a nation largely built by migrants, there is a lot of public support for providing immigrants an opportunity to legalize their status. A December 2005 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that three in five Americans said undocumented workers should be given the opportunity to stay and become citizens.

In June 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and The Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. resolved to make comprehensive immigration reform, with special emphasis on legalization, a major public policy priority within the Church. The campaign, “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope,” aims to reach beyond the networks of the participating national agencies, and seek the support of all of us as individuals and institutions in dioceses throughout the country.

I learned recently that Indianapolis has the fifth fastest growing Hispanic population in the United States. I remind us that these immigrants are our sisters and brothers. Most of them share our Catholic faith. They not only join the work force that substantially supports our local economy, they also bring with them a beautiful and enriching devotion to Jesus and our Blessed Mother Mary and the saints.

During this coming Holy Week and Easter season, let’s pray fervently for the betterment of their lives among us. Let’s be sure we become part of the resolution of the immigration situation, not part of the problem. †


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