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The right and wrong ways to argue about immigration

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2008

Virtually everyone agrees that American immigration policy must be reformed. The system is broken: on that much, everyone agrees. The political debate begins only when someone proposes a way to fix it.

America's borders are porous, and thousands of people enter the US illegally every day. The results are detrimental to the economy, to national security, and even to many of the illegal immigrants, who are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Yet in spite of widespread public dissatisfaction and even anger over the existing policies, neither of the country's major political parties has offered a realistic proposal to secure the borders.

In a perceptive column that appeared recently in the Denver Catholic Register, Archbishop Charles Chaput remarked on the fact that candidates are not talking much about immigration during this election year. As he put it:

A kind of unstated truce has settled in, with many candidates and public officials offering generic concern about the immigration issue, but few actually doing anything until after the election.

Archbishop Chaput treats political issues carefully-- an approach you would expect from the author of an outstanding new book on Church-state relations (Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life). He does not propose an overall solution to the immigration question. But he does offer a stern critique of one aspect of existing policy: raids on workplaces where illegal immigrants are employed. The US bishops have been consistently critical of these workplace raids, in which illegal immigrants are rounded up and deported-- sometimes breaking up families and leaving dependents to live in the US illegally without a breadwinner.

Archbishop Chaput makes a reasoned argument against these workplace raids. I encourage readers to his peruse his entire column and decide for themselves whether he makes a convincing case. Ultimately the archbishop is persuasive, I think, in arguing that the raids do not address the fundamental problem:

Immigration enforcement raids demonstrate politically the ability of the government to enforce the law. They do little, however, to solve the broader challenge of illegal immigration. They also reveal, sadly, the failure of a seriously flawed immigration system, which, as we have consistently stated, requires comprehensive reform.

My point in this short essay, however, is not to resolve the debate on immigration-- or even the debate on the proper Catholic approach to the question. Instead, I want to make a point about the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable arguments. Archbishop Chaput's argument-- like it not, as you will-- is reasonable.

Regrettably, several other Catholic prelates and Church institutions have been making unreasonable arguments. In the process, I believe, they damage both the cause of immigration reform and-- far more serious-- the credibility of the Church.

For example, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, recently issued a statement proclaiming that the existing immigration law is unjust, and that therefore immigration agents should not be obliged to enforce it. We might argue back and forth on whether the law is unjust. But if someone truly believes that the current law is immoral, he should not hold a position as an enforcement agent! If a government official who believes he has been assigned to carry out injustice, he has a moral obligation to resign his post. Conscientious objection is a legitimate option for ordinary citizens, but not for representatives of the government.

Worse, consider the talk that Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, delivered earlier this month to an audience in Ohio, comparing the workplace raids to the brutal assaults in which Nazi troops rounded up Jews for deportation in the Holocaust. That sort of hyperbolic rhetoric is an insult to an American audience; it can only diminish the public credibility of the Church.

The Fides news service, an arm of the Vatican's Congregation for Evangelization, did its own damage to Church authority with a sensational analysis , clearly based on inadequate reporting, that claimed "it is almost impossible to legally immigrate to the USA." This analysis-- marked by far more emotion than logic-- said that last year "the US Senate vetoed a bill approved by Congress…." Evidently the author of this piece did not know, and perhaps did not care, that the US Senate is a part of Congress, and not a separate institution with veto power. This sort of reporting, sponsored by a Vatican agency, is downright embarrassing.

What do these sensationalistic arguments accomplish, other than inflaming passions on both sides of the debate? Church leaders, in applying Catholic social teaching to controversial topics, should always shed light-- not heat-- on political topics.

Archbishop Chaput, in a comment following up on his column, reminded the Catholic News Agency that "the Catholic Church respects and obeys our immigration authorities and discourages anyone from violating our laws." That sort of comment provides a needed reassurance that the archbishop is not himself a political partisan. Demagoguery is not the Catholic style.

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