Don’t Shut the Door Behind You

Catholics and the Complications of U.S. Immigration Policy

“There’s so many of them,” the septuagenarian remarked to a large gathering of us over dinner that night. “With all the people coming here from everywhere, can New York City really make room, come up with an apartment for every new immigrant family?” There was a clear note of doubt in his voice. I wanted to speak, but one of his contemporaries did instead: “Didn’t New York City have enough room for your parents when they came here from Eastern Europe?”

I suppose there is something natural about wanting to shut the door behind us, fearful there won’t be enough for everyone?enough jobs, enough wealth, enough housing. Here in New York City, enough simple space .

Bad news, good news
Especially in economically difficult times, Americans have always challenged the rights of recent immigrants to be here (as with the anti-Catholic nativist movement ). In our own time, the events of September 11 complicated matters. In the reorganization of the way our borders are defended, the process of naturalization and of granting asylum and legal residency have grown more arcane and have been significantly slowed.

I have a couple of friends in “immigration limbo,” neither fish nor fowl, temporarily permitted to be here, not yet allowed to work, suspended in a process of acceptance that will likely stretch on for 5-6 years.

On a more promising note, recently, old political rivalries have been overcome, and labor unions, immigrants groups, and religious organizations have come together to address the question of legal protections for immigrants at work. Undocumented workers in particular are daily being underpaid, sexually harrassed, forced to work long hours, enduring harmful conditions, but they have no recourse due to their precarious legal status. A fall Freedom Ride brought much needed public attention to their plight.

The international complications
Naturally, no one can deny that the issue of immigration is complicated. The attackers of 9/11 got here on visas they shouldn’t have received. Yet often it seems the wrong people are caught up in the dragnet. I finally heard a Bush administration official admit on the radio the other day that Mexican immigrants being held up by “national security issues” were clearly not the threats that the new laws are intended to intercept.

The complications explode when you consider the issue from the viewpoint of countries from which people come. In 1997, I spent a month studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation with a long history of connection with the United States (not all of it pleasant?the U.S. backed their most brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo). One of my teachers told me stories of families in his small town divided by fathers leaving for the U.S. He wanted me to tell the Dominican men I would preach to in the U.S. that their presence was more important than their ability to provide fancy sneakers. I held my breath.

Brain drain and simple desire
Scholars speak of “brain drain”-the most ambitious and driven people from a nation emigrating because of the greater opportunity abroad. Yet at the same time, U.S. residents send a great deal of the money they earn back home, sometimes injecting life into small towns in the process (but also creating the spectre of a certain dependency).

But on a human level, can anybody blame a parent for leaving his or her country when they note the grinding poverty around them and contrast it with the tales of opportunity for a family in the United States? What would any of us do?

The word of the Church
The teaching of the Catholic Church in matters of immigration tries to take the complexities of an international phenomenon into account without ever losing sight of the real people involved. So theologians and bishops point to the traditional Catholic value of solidarity ?the fact that being a Christian means that the concerns of people far away or very different from me matter. At the root, we are both human beings, both children of God, both fundamentally the same.

Immigration policy is one of those issues that comes up every election year, and no doubt it will be on the minds and mouths of the president and his Democratic opponents as the election season continues. It will be certainly be one of the factors I take into account when I make up my mind.

Catholicism on Immigration
Most Catholics are shocked to find out what their Church’s teaching is on the issue of immigration, but considering our history of arriving in the U.S. as poor immigrants, they probably shouldn’t be.

Rooted in concern for human rights, concern for the family, the poor, and the needy, Catholic teaching on immigration: recognizes the fundamental rights of people to migrate out of economic, political, and family need, recognizes that nations need to control their borders, does not condone illegal migration, yet believes that undocumented workers who have already arrived in the United States should be given the legal right to live and work here.