US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Get off the fence and support immigration reform

By Joshua Hoyt | Print this pagePrint |
Some Catholics aren't so sure about the bishops' push for comprehensive immigration reform, but this Catholic activist says it's time for the entire church to stick up for immigrants.

Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

Ask any priest or nun working with Latino immigrants in the United States, and they will tell you that many of their parishioners are living in a state of terror. Then ask them what the larger Catholic community is doing about it, and the answer will likely be: "Damn little!"

Immigration reform died an ugly death in 2007. The professional pushers of addictive resentment and fear-such as Michael Savage and Lou Dobbs-created a toxic anti-immigrant smog that spread over our nation. Bullies rule the land, and decent people are silent.

The result is a shameful regimen of racial profiling, paramilitary abuse of force by out-of-control Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and the denial of due process to the unlucky immigrants caught up in the backlash against undocumented migrants.

Most important to Catholics is the destruction of families through deportations. In 2008 ICE deported 267,000 undocumented immigrants. The overwhelming majority were simply workers building a life with their families in this land. Our nation has not seen as shameful a spasm of immigrant abuse since "Operation Wetback" deported a million Mexican laborers abruptly deemed redundant after World War II.

While President Obama has thankfully initiated a moratorium on workplace raids, even under his administration the misery continues. The ICE website brags that deportations are up 18 percent nationally over 2008 levels. This despite Obama's oft-stated position that current immigration laws are broken and that a practical, comprehensive reform package is necessary.

Immigration reform is only fair to the thousands of immigrant families who have been whipsawed by our historically capricious treatment of undocumented workers. For decades the United States turned a blind eye to the illegal immigration of Mexican workers across our southern border. Their cheap labor was convenient to powerful farmers, to poultry and meatpacking industries, to restaurant owners, and to all of us who enjoy cheap vegetables.

Now a souring economy means that the "illegal" workers are surplus laborers, and national security demands that we know who is living in our nation.

But rhetorical or real clampdowns on undocumented workers are all show. The owners of the meatpacking companies, farmers, restaurants, manufacturers, or other small businesses that rely on this workforce are rarely prosecuted. And even at a greatly accelerated pace of deportations, it would take some 48 years to deport the estimated 12 million undocumented workers currently in the United States-assuming no one else ever crosses the border.

How well has the U.S. church responded to this cultural and actual assault against undocumented workers? The honest answer would have to be "mixed."

The official position of church leadership has been superb. The U.S. and Mexican bishops jointly issued the pastoral letter Strangers No Longer seven years ago, calling for family unification and a broad legalization program.

As early as 2003 the bishops saw the increasingly ugly tone of the debate: "Alarmingly, migrants often are treated as criminals. Misperceptions and xenophobic and racist attitudes in both the United States and Mexico contribute to an atmosphere in which undocumented persons are discriminated against and abused."

Grounded in scripture and Catholic social teaching, the pastoral declares that "the human dignity and human rights of undocumented immigrants should be respected."

Since then, the church also has launched the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform ( to mobilize its institutions and people in the struggle for justice for undocumented migrants.

But the most impressive work is being done by Catholics in the immigrant parishes. As a former lay volunteer with the Catholic Church in Peru and in Panama, I can attest to the profound personal transformation that results from being in real relationships with immigrant workers. Seeing up close the hard work, faith, and dedication to family of poor migrants working in some of the most back-breaking and dangerous jobs in the United States is transformational for Catholics blessed by this opportunity.

It's not an accident that during the mass deportation raids in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Postville, Iowa; and Laurel, Mississippi, it was the Catholic parishes that organized emergency community support and served as the sanctuary for the terrified family members of those arrested. The Catholic communities of these towns and countless others across the land have earned the eternal trust of the immigrant community through their old-fashioned exercise of solidarity.

But after giving credit to our church for work well done, we must also admit to a shameful unwillingness to mobilize the breadth of the Catholic community in support of intelligent immigration reform.

For each Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles or Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island who speaks out fearlessly against attacks on undocumented workers and in support of reform, there are 20 timid bishops who remain mute on the issue. In the affluent parishes where the Catholic corporate and political elites of our land worship, the pulpits on Sundays ring with platitudes rather than thunder with calls to action on behalf of immigrant Catholics.

Collectively, European-descent Catholics have forgotten when we, too, were the strangers in a strange land-the times of "No Irish Need Apply," "WOPs" ("without papers"), "Polacks," and "Bohunks."

And many Catholic efforts in support of immigration reform maintain a safe, antiseptic distance from the immigrant "activist" community.

It doesn't have to be that way. In the United States we respond to broken laws by fixing them. That is why we no longer have slavery, why women can vote, and why blacks and whites can use the same drinking fountains. Our immigration laws are broken, and they need to be fixed to include:

  • A continued commitment to family unity as the fundamental basis for migration. Intact families are good for society, and the current emphasis on family reunification (about 70 percent of visas are for family reunification) is completely consistent with Catholic social teaching.
  • More legal channels for low-wage workers to come fill the low-skill jobs that the U.S. service economy is creating. Low-wage workers have historically come to the U.S. without visas. Offering more visas would bring this migration under the rule of law, increasing national security.
  • Smart enforcement at our borders and workplaces. With low-wage workers able to enter the country legally, measures such as walls built only at strategic points along the border and electronic monitoring at the border and in workplaces will focus scarce law enforcement resources on bad people such as drug smugglers and human traffickers.
  • A path to legalization and earned citizenship for the overwhelming majority of the 12 million undocumented who are contributing with their labor and who moved here during the "nod and wink" period of negligible or sporadic immigration enforcement.

This strategy will encourage legal immigration and discourage illegal immigration, freeing up border and other enforcement resources. We'd be able to invest resources in helping immigrants learn English and fully participate in our nation, while also investing in job creation in Mexico to slow the "push" factor in immigration from that nation.

Areasoned debate cannot take place in an atmosphere of intimidation. So it is time for Catholics-and I am including the timid bishops, the pastoral and conflict-averse pastors, and the European-descent Catholics suffering from historical amnesia--to discover our full voice.

We must stand up to the bullies and the naysayers. It is time to show this nation the meaning of solidarity and find the image and likeness of God in our immigrant brothers and sisters, however they appear--or don't appear--on paper.

And the survey says...

1. The overall response of the Catholic community to the immigration issue has been timid and underwhelming.

71% - Agree
20% - Disagree
9% - Other

2. I'd like to see immigration reform include:

80% - A path to citizenship for honest workers.
79% - A focus on family reunification.
72% - More visas for low-wage workers.
48% - Prosecution of companies hiring undocumented workers.
35% - Greater monitoring in the workplaces.
35% - Stronger law enforcement at the border.
13% - Increased deportations.
12% - A wall only at strategic spots along the border.
10% - A wall across the entire southern border.
11% - Other

3. The church should not help those who have entered this country illegally.

16% - Agree
73% - Disagree
11% - Other

Representative of "other":
"The church should help immigrants become legal."

4. I've heard of discrimination/racism against Latinos presumed to be undocumented in my community.

49% - Agree
43% - Disagree
8% - Other

5. From our history as an immigrant church, Catholics should support the bishops' push for comprehensive immigration reform.

77% - Agree
14% - Disagree
9% - Other

6. Priests at my parish speak out forcefully in favor of the bishops' goals for immigration policy.

44% - Never
25% - Seldom
17% - Occasionally
7% - Often
2% - Always
5% - Other

7. I have actively supported comprehensive immigration reform.

48% - Agree
39% - Disagree
13% - Other

I support comprehensive immigration reform because . . .

It is needed and a matter of justice as well as kindness.

Immigrants are not criminals. We need reform so people who come here to support their families are able to do so.

The biblical mandate is to welcome the newcomer. And can we please stop using the term stranger? There is nothing strange about immigrants.

I do support it but not necessarily as designed by the bishops.

No one should be treated as a criminal for wanting to be an American.

Immigrants of the past have become good U.S. citizens in the present. I think this is true of immigrants today.

I don't support comprehensive reform because . . .

I believe we have rules for a reason in this country. We should not reward those who come into our country illegally.

Open borders will destroy our culture and our economy and, therefore, our ability to help the world at large.

It's tough enough without immigrants competing for the few jobs out there.

Our parish supports immigrants by . . .

Sponsoring or allowing groups to use our building for meetings. Also Catholic Charities, which has offices in our parish center, has an immigration helper on staff.

The pastor has a once-a-year citizenship application workshop in the parish hall.

My parish is not involved. It is a white, affluent parish. But it is involved in many other justice issues, like helping the poor and homeless and missions.

Welcoming them.

Encouraging the pastor to learn Spanish, organizing group participation in immigration rallies, and offering Mexican food at parish functions.

After finding a nearby Baptist church for sale, my parish, working with the Hispanic community, bought the building and converted it into a center offering ESL and other services to the immigrant community.

Supporting integration, which is not a code word for assimilation.

What frustrates me about the immigration reform debate is . . .

We only look at it from a very selfish "me" attitude: "What am I losing?" rather than, "How can I help my brothers and sisters in their time of need?"

A focus solely on the immigrants and not on those who encourage them by providing low-wage jobs.

The extreme polarization of the electorate. There seems to be little compromise.

How we fail to see our immigrants as people, trying to find a better life. In a country (and world) with so much surplus, why can't we share?

Being unable to reach consensus and action nationally and confronting hostility or opposition among family and friends.

The lack of connecting the dots between illegal immigration and our foreign policies-especially in the area of agriculture, as well as our desire for cheap foods, products, and services.

When it comes to immigration, I wish my pastor would . . .

Inform us more about what is going on in our area. We are a helping parish. All we have to do is be informed and members contribute.

It is not his job to tell me what he thinks, nor should he have to listen to my opinion.

Not be so afraid of offending anyone. He stays miles away from anything that could be considered remotely political.

Offer suggestions on how we could be activists in our community.

Speak up. Even more, I wish my bishop would speak up. He is mute on this topic.

Too much falls on the pastors already. When it comes to immigration, I wish we, as a parish, would proactively look for ways to be more welcoming, more supportive, more caring for immigrants.

General Comments

The church continues to be a sleeping giant rather than a prophetic voice in our age.

We need to work to reduce the number of people who want to immigrate to the United States by ending wars, not supporting persecutions, and greatly reducing the economic disparity between countries.

Let's call the debate for what it is really about: racism. I grew up 40 miles from the Canadian border, where there was no militia attempting to keep Canadians from crossing. "Immigration" has become a code word for keeping Hispanics out of the country at the southern border.

We are all connected. We are all one in the Body of Christ. Political borders are artificial provisions of public safety and other needs, but people are all one family. What hurts one hurts us all.

This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 2, pages 29-33).

Results are based on survey responses from 267 U.S. Catholic readers and website visitors.

Image: William Petersen