Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

How Catholics might advance the debate on immigration

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 15, 2011

Since the appearance of my comment on the need for clarity in the debate on immigration, several readers have written to say that immigrants living in the US are not “criminals,” since residing in the US without proper documentation is a civil rather than criminal offense. That’s a fair point: a distinction that I should have made.

However, while it is not a crime to be in the US without proper documentation, it is a crime to enter the US without proper documentation. So a reference to criminal activity is not entirely out of place, and the complaint of 33 bishops that illegal immigrants are “treated as criminals” rings hollow.

When I say that illegal immigrants have broken the law, I do not mean to condemn them, nor do I mean to say that the law is flawless. I am only saying that in order to proceed with a productive debate on immigration—a debate that is long overdue in America—we should use logical arguments, not appeals to emotion. Insofar as the bishops wish for changes in current immigration law, they have my sympathy and support. But when their public statements give the impression that illegal activity should not be regarded as illegal—a logically indefensible position—they only muddle the arguments and make productive discussion more difficult.

Frankly, I should be the last person to condemn someone for illegal activity. Having been raised on the streets of Boston, where vehicular traffic is anarchic, I am an inveterate jaywalker. When I drive, I often exceed the speed limit and rarely come to a full stop at intersections. These are offenses (civil, not criminal) for which I feel no sense of regret. However, I also recognize that my behavior could have adverse consequences; if I am ticketed for my offenses, I have no legitimate grounds for complaint.

Some years ago I was arrested a few times on criminal charges, for blocking the doors of abortion clinics. Again, I feel no remorse for these “crimes;” in fact I am proud of what I did, because it was done for a just cause. (At the time, I would have welcomed statements of support for our blockades from the US bishops.) But when I was treated like a criminal—jailed, indicted, prosecuted—I was neither surprised nor dismayed, because I realized that in the eyes of the law I was guilty of a crime. The law is the law. Those who break the law should be prepared to face the consequences.

Moreover, the laws that prohibit blockades on public sidewalks are good and just laws. Under ordinary circumstances—abortion clinics aside—I want those laws enforced. Similarly, the laws that bar people from entering a country without legal authorization are good and just laws. We might disagree about what sort of authorization should be required and how easy it should be to obtain, but very few people, I hope, would argue for entirely open international borders.

The first step toward clarity in our national debate on immigration should be a recognition of that very fact: that a sovereign nation must control its own borders. At the moment, the US does not effectively control the Mexican border; thousands of people are streaming across it without legal approval. Until we can establish control over the flow of immigration, all other questions are moot.

A second necessary step should be to recognize that the US is not going to deport the millions of immigrants who are now living in the country without documentation. Even leaving aside the sense of compassion that would militate against mass expulsions, there would be insuperable practical obstacles. Any such purge would be prohibitively expensive, in terms of the demands on the court system and police powers, and the disruption of business and communities suddenly deprived of honest workers and residents. Despite the ardent wishes of the most fervent anti-immigrant campaigners, the US will not evict every illegal immigrant. It’s not going to happen. It’s a fantasy. Forget it.

So where do we stand, then? Unfortunately, both major political parties in the US have found it useful to exploit the immigration crisis rather than to address it. The Democratic party, noticing that it commands overwhelming support among Hispanic voters, has pandered to immigrants—both legal and illegal. The Republican party has sought to capitalize on anti-immigration sentiment without advancing practical proposals for securing the border. Both parties, for their own reasons, are content to escalate the debate without advancing it—to generate heat rather than light.

For that very reason, the Catholic Church has an opportunity to inject some reasoned arguments into the public discussion. Writing in the American Spectator, Deal Hudson and Matt Smith make the case that at least one prominent Catholic prelate, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, is rising to the challenge, and conservatives would be wise to pay careful attention to his appeals. The archbishop balances a disdain for illegal activity (“I don’t like it when our rule of law is flouted.”) with a sympathetic attitude toward those who are now living in the US without documentation (“We are deporting fathers and leaving single mothers to raise children on little or no income.”).

Campaigning politicians may find it expedient to reduce this debate to a contest of slogans or of prejudices—to a competition between those who favor unrestricted immigration and those who oppose it. But there is plenty of room between those poles for reasoned discussion. Let me suggest several main points—all of them debatable, I suppose—on which the discussion could be based.

  1. The law is the law. Good laws should be enforced. Those who violate laws should face appropriate consequences. Borders must be controlled.
  2. Bad laws should be changed. If there is no public consensus in favor of enforcing the law, it is probably a bad law.
  3. The US can accommodate a larger number of legal immigrants than our current policies allow. (If we cut down sharply on the number of illegal immigrants, we could welcome more worthy candidates.) Our policies should exclude criminals and opportunists, while encouraging immigrants who are ready and able to become productive citizens and taxpayers.
  4. Immigration policies should place a high priority on the needs of the families applying for residence (or fighting expulsion). Children should not suffer needlessly because of their parents’ transgressions.
  5. Employers who put illegal immigrants to work with substandard wages and/or working conditions should be punished more severely than the workers they exploit.
  6. Immigrants who have been in the US for years, living peaceably and productively but without documentation, should be given some means of regularizing their status. Any crackdown on illegal immigrants should begin with those who engaged in crimes or profiteered from the welfare system, not those who are gainfully employed.

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: - Dec. 17, 2011 2:07 PM ET USA

    Frankly, I'm appalled by this effort to downplay wrongdoing by improperly documented migrants. If I speed, forget my driver's license, or allow my passport to expire while I'm overseas, I commit a crime. Period!! Law enforcement will be involved. Even if it's not a jail-worthy offense, I AM still MORALLY culpable! Advocates have all but rejected even the possibility of this being true. This insistence that migrants are innocent victims needs to end.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - Dec. 17, 2011 2:02 PM ET USA

    Cardinal George has stated that “Americans are not wrong for expecting the laws against illegal immigration to be upheld.” I applaud the writers measured approach which rightly condemns the perfidy of both Dems & GOP. I would add that current policy is part of a range of foolish policies of the elite to crush the middle class by making the US a low wage haven. This is one of the reasons many Christians think free trade dogma needs to be reassessed.

  • Posted by: unum - Dec. 17, 2011 10:10 AM ET USA

    I am a staunch conservative, and it is wonderful to see a rational basis for a national discussion about immigration instead of the sound bites our elected officials are offering. We need to support candidates who will work for a solution to illegal immigration and oppose those candidates who are demagoguing the issue.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 17, 2011 6:56 AM ET USA

    I would add that an illegal alien who commits a crime should be deported immediately. Additionally I would add that illegal aliens should not be eligible for any social benefits.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Dec. 17, 2011 1:30 AM ET USA

    A very useful essay, through and through. Well done. On the completely peripheral subject of vehicular traffic in Boston, I vividly recall my first encounter with it. Soon after our arrival, I tried to pilot our rental car into the airport tunnel. It took me less than a minute to realize that by using my deferential California driving manners, I was utterly confusing everyone around me and someone was going to get killed if I kept it up. I dialed up the aggression, and everything was fine.

  • Posted by: mrb - Dec. 16, 2011 9:54 PM ET USA

    I don't think it's necessary to deport all illegal immigrants. Start with the criminals, then start enforcing the law that employers check to see that their workers are legal. Once people hear that they might get caught, they'll go home on their own in many cases.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 16, 2011 9:41 PM ET USA

    Aliens who enter this country illegally are by definition criminals. Yes, it is impractical to deport millions of these criminals. As to the children of these criminals who are born here and therefore automatic citizens -- our laws need to be changed to reflect those of the rest of the world where simply being born in a country does not automatically confer citizenship. Many bishops support illegal immigrants out of a totally misguided idealism -- same reason they support CCHD.

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Dec. 16, 2011 5:09 PM ET USA

    Agree with your every word! God bless the JUST! Nothing could be worse than having unpracticed laws in abundance! "No one is above the LAW!" Let us get rid of all the IIM who are criminals, or on welfare. Keep the self supporting contributors. Never to feed Satanic Sympathy! That is feeding evil! They give into EVIL so to be liked, thus make it grows as parasites, in time, it consumes the host! Be ware of the LUKE WARM who wants only to be liked,"righteousness" is not in their conscience!