US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Good Samaritan? You have the right to remain silent...

Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |

Ever give someone a ride home from church after Mass? If you didn't stop to check their paperwork first, you might have been committing a crime.

At least, that's the argument over Alabama's controversial new immigration law. The law prohibits transportation or harboring of undocumented persons, and its definition of those terms is sufficiently vague enough that there is concern it could make simple acts of Christian charity result in a one-way trip to the slammer.

According to three bishops who filed a lawsuit (representing the local Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal churches) over the law, it criminalizes "God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”

Of course, the law's backers say that it has nothing to do with punishing Good Samaritans, just your routine "bad guys" like traffickers or employers who try to hire undocumented workers as a way to get around labor laws. But who the law was written for, and who is actually going to be prosecuted under it, is not really the point here.

In reality, this is the next step in the escalating battle between those who are trying to defend the humanity and dignity of all peopleregardless of their documentation statusand those who have a more selective definition of "justice." The same type of standoff took place in Oklahoma a few years back when a similar law was passed, and church leaders were among its biggest opponents. The difference is that now, those opponents are going a step further by formally filing a lawsuit. (For a good take on the church's opposition to this type of law, check out this pastoral letter by Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor, who was on the frontlines of the Oklahoma legal battle.)

No one, including the church, is saying that people should be allowed to break the law without consequence, but those consequences should still include a certain level of respect and compassion, regardless of who the "lawbreaker" might be.

This latest fight shows that church leaders still have a long way to go in turning the tide of public opinion when it comes to how immigrants are viewed in our society. More importantly, it highlights the need for serious national immigration reformsomething long supported by Catholic leaders that has seemingly fallen off the radar of Congress. 

But with laws like those in Alabama and Arizona, it looks like things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.