Clarity, please, on illegal immigration

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 13, 2011

In the letter to immigrants signed by 33 Hispanic American bishops, one sentence cries out for editorial amendment:

Despite your contributions to the well-being of our country, instead of receiving our thanks, you are often treated as criminals because you have violated current immigration laws.

Who are criminals? People who violate the laws. So there is a blatant logical flaw in the bishops’ lament.

The bishops might have said that it is wrong to treat illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals, since their presence in the US is not a threat to public safety. Or they might have said that it is wrong to treat illegal immigrants with contempt, since they are children of God, endowed with the same fundamental human rights and human dignity. Or they might even have said that immigrants who have lived in the US for years and raised families here should not be hounded forever because of a violation in the distant past. Those would have been simple, straightforward arguments, easily defended in public debates. But the argument that the bishops actually did make is not defensible. There is no injustice in treating criminals as criminals.

There are times, to be sure, when it is morally justifiable—even commendable—to break a law. If the law is fundamentally unjust, those who violate it may be considered heroes rather than villains, deserving of praise rather than censure. Still, if they are breaking the law, they should not be surprised when the police come knocking on their doors. Heroic though they may be in the eyes of the public, until the law is changed they are still criminals in the light of the law.

Moreover, it is far from clear that US immigration laws are inherently unjust. Surely any government has the right to enact some laws regulating who is and who is not a citizen, or a legal resident, of the country. Are the American immigration laws imperfect? Certainly. But are they so fundamentally wrong that it is a moral act to defy them? The bishops have not made the case to justify such a claim.

So what are the Hispanic bishops actually saying in their letter? That current immigration laws are unjust and should be amended? That illegal immigrants living peacefully in the US should be given amnesty, and allowed to regularize their status? Those are plausible arguments, which have been advanced by prominent political leaders. We can debate them rationally, and we should.

This letter from the 33 Hispanic bishops is addressed to immigrants rather than to political leaders, and so it is written primarily to provide encouragement rather than to offer policy suggestions. But every public statement helps to shape the overall debate, and illogical pleas do nothing to advance the discussion.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 15, 2011 11:44 AM ET USA

    Also missing from the bishop's position are two questions: 1. What is worse, US immigration law and its poor enforcement, or Mexican economic justice? Why focus on the US when it's the Mexican political system that fuels the economic hell hole depriving people of their right to support their families in their own country? 2. How does amnesty square with the immigrants who followed the law?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 14, 2011 1:05 PM ET USA

    "Respect the Emperor" (up to and including Nero) The first Pope Peter "Respect the Scribes and the Pharisees, for they sit in the Chair of Moses" Jesus Christ Christianity give NO PERROGATIVE to arbitrarily disobey Civil Law.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 14, 2011 12:19 PM ET USA

    Why should the Hispanic bishops have any greater authority in the matter than the other bishops? Indeed they have less, being partisan rather than charitable in their approach. Mr. Lawler's suggestions are reasonable and rational.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Dec. 14, 2011 11:36 AM ET USA

    Actually, Mike, under our legal system jaywalkers and people who get speeding tickets are not considered criminals, since those transgressions are classed as "infractions". The states here are far more charitable in that regard than is Mexico, which, I understand, does treat traffic violators as criminals. Now crossing an international border illegally - that would be considered a crime.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Dec. 14, 2011 7:41 AM ET USA

    By your definition, jaywalkers are criminals. Get some charity.

  • Posted by: Ray and Ann - Dec. 13, 2011 7:48 PM ET USA

    I believe it's "proxenetismo". Sadly they have the support of many non-hispanic bishops.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 13, 2011 1:40 PM ET USA

    What is Spanish for pandering?