The Faith and Politics of Immigration

How candidates’ views on immigration reform are shaping up in this year’s election

People wave US flags and hold signs calling for action on immigration reform as President Barack Obama visits El Paso, Texas, in 2011. (CNS photo/Gael Gonzalez, Reuters)
The Republican Party may have a Latino problem on its hands. The remaining candidates seeking the party’s nomination have taken an unusually harsh tone regarding immigration, and the two Catholic candidates are at odds with their Church about the rights of migrant people. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has moved to the far right on immigration, and Latino voters are responding by falling in line behind President Barack Obama. Understanding what the Catholic Church teaches on immigration, and how those teachings might influence crucial Latino communities, may give the GOP nominee a reason to reconsider the harsh rhetoric.

Romney dominated the Puerto Rico primary last week, trouncing Rick Santorum, his main rival, winning more than 80 percent of the vote and all 20 delegates. Romney benefitted from the support of Puerto Rico’s governor, and he tried to appeal to voters by coming out in favor of statehood with no preconditions. Santorum, who campaigned on the island, made a major gaffe when he said that he would support statehood for the US territory only if English were the official language (though the US has no official language). Romney pointed to his massive victory as evidence of his ability to attract Latino voters. Come November, that crucial bloc of voters may make or break either party’s nominee, controlling contests in swing states such as Nevada, Arizona, Virginia, and Colorado. If current trends hold, the GOP is set to lose that vote by record margins after nearly a decade of work to attract those voters.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the potential crisis facing the GOP:

A recent poll by Fox News Latino illustrated the problem for the GOP: 70% of Latino voters backed Obama, compared with 14% supporting Romney (a few points above his GOP competitors). Four in five Latino voters who backed Obama in 2008 said they would back him in 2012. And voters who supported 2008 Republican nominee John McCain — who appealed to some Latino voters because of his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform — split between the two parties.

The numbers suggest that this year’s Republican nominee will struggle to match the 31% of the Latino vote captured by McCain in 2008, much less the 40% garnered by George W. Bush in 2004.

Latinos are not monolithic in terms of voting, and like other demographics, they rank the economy and jobs as top concerns for the presidential election. Immigration, unsurprisingly, also ranks high among Latino concerns. The tone that candidates use when speaking to the issue also affects a candidate’s overall appeal. And because both President Obama and the Republican candidates favor similar policies regarding undocumented immigrants and border enforcement, tone may be precisely what decides the 2012 presidential election.

Though I identify as a white, non-Hispanic person, immigration excites me because my identity as a Catholic carries with it a rich history of immigration and support for immigrant communities. Like many Catholics in the United States, I trace my roots to a variety of European nations, including Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. Yet many of my ancestors were Catholic (though there are a few Calvinists thrown in just to temper my personality a bit). When my great-grandparents left their homes for new lives here, they faced hostility and xenophobia on these shores. The Church provided a support network that offered some hope and respite from the gruel of daily life. In time, this wave of Catholic immigrants assimilated into American life, culminating perhaps with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency, a historic moment for Catholic immigrants in the United States.

Today, the Church is an important voice for new communities of immigrants, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Though there are some fractures even within our Church, Catholic leaders have been at the forefront of demanding respect and hospitality for both legal immigrants and undocumented people.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops went on record in favor of the DREAM Act, with Los Angeles’s Archbishop Jose Gomez writing:

The United States is a great country because it is a land of opportunity, family values, and compassion. Throughout our history, we have given newcomers the opportunity to work hard and be successful, to our country’s substantial benefit. We have also placed a high premium on the integrity of the family unit. And, we have refused to punish the innocent among us.

The bishops, speaking for the Catholic faithful, are clear in their support for humane and comprehensive immigration reform that respects the rights of the individual, the family, and the community. While recognizing that nations have a duty to secure borders to protect the common good, the bishops write:

Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” Catholic Catechism, 2241.

Much of the problem for the GOP comes from general conservative mistrust of Romney and his attempt to strengthen his conservative cred by lurching to the far right on immigration. Politico explains Romney’s controversial positions and why they’re hurting his chances come November:

Romney — who needs to bolster his support among tea-party conservatives — hasn’t merely embraced the controversial Alabama and Arizona immigration laws, as most in his party have. He’s sought the advice of the controversial co-author of the bills, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who consults with the campaign as an unpaid adviser and whose endorsement has been touted in conservative primary states such as South Carolina and Arizona.

More important, Romney has publicly espoused Kobach’s polarizing philosophy of “self-deportation,” the idea of making life so inhospitable to illegal immigrants they’ll flee rather than face legal proceedings.

One important piece of the immigration conversation is the DREAM Act, a bill that would offer a path to citizenship for those individuals who were brought to the United States as undocumented minors. Romney opposes the bill while Obama supports it. The same Fox poll shows that 90 percent of Latino voters support DREAM while “85 percent favor a way to become citizens for all illegal immigrants, and 82 percent believe undocumented immigrants help to grow the US economy.”

Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the United States, and though there is no official census, studies conclude that between 50 and 90 percent of Latinos is Catholic. It is no surprise then that the rich history of Catholic social thought on immigration helps to animate views on this subject. If the GOP won’t come around on immigration for moral reasons, perhaps they should for political considerations.