Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The immigration debate: a plague on both houses

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 20, 2018

Now that President Trump has signed an executive order ending the separation of families by immigration agents, I hope that one of the most appalling political arguments in recent American history will come to an end. But I doubt it. I suspect the argument will continue, because both sides are heavily invested in the nonsense.

This debate has been painful and divisive, unproductive and unnecessary. As Davis Harsanyi explained in a simple, straightforward presentation for The Federalist, the separation of families—a harsh policy, widely and rightly condemned—could have been stopped at any time. President Trump could have stopped it (as he now has stopped it) by an executive order. Democrats in Congress could have stopped it, by backing appropriate legislation. But both the President and the Democrats chose to leave the policy in place, hoping to turn public opinion against their rivals.

Trump thought that by separating children from their parents, he could illustrate how inflexible the Democrats have been. The Democrats thought that by prolonging the border confrontations, they could show how inhumane the President’s policies were. Both were right; the Democrats were inflexible; Trump’s policies were inhumane.

What is still more unforgivable, both sides were perfectly willing to exploit the suffering of families in order to score their own points. The outrage of the politicians was staged for the cameras. The suffering of children, however, was real.

This disgraceful episode is only the latest and basest installment in a debate that has continued now for decades, without any substantial progress. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have used the immigration issue as a means of raising funds and soliciting votes—and used it so successfully, it seems, that they have lost interest in solving the problem.

Regrettably, the American Catholic bishops plunged into the latest partisan wrangle, adding their own condemnations to a policy that no one really wanted to continue. The unseemly haste with which prelates joined the fray—siding with Trump’s critics and ignoring the arguments of his defenders—prompted some conservative Catholics to question why the bishops were not equally outspoken in their criticism of politicians who support abortion. As my colleague Jeff Mirus has pointed out, it is absurd and unjust to imply that the American bishops have been silent on the abortion issue. The bishops have repeatedly condemned abortion. Nevertheless there is a distinction to be made: a distinction that is not evident in the bishops’ rhetoric.

No American politician suggested that it was desirable to separate children from their parents. Both Trump and his Congressional critics said that the policy should be stopped, and would be stopped if the other side cooperated. By contrast many politicians—including, sadly, some who identify themselves as Catholics—have said that it is desirable to make legal abortion more widely available. Bishops who have declined to take disciplinary action against Catholic politicians who have won accolades from Planned Parenthood have no business advocating sanctions against federal officials who enforce immigration policies.

If the American bishops had preserved their political neutrality during this debate, they might have been in a strong position to propose a way out of this ugly political quagmire. Catholic social teaching—when it is interpreted dispassionately, without partisan fervor—does offer sound principles that could guide a productive debate.

The Church, guided by principles that are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition dating back to the Old Testament, teaches us that we must help those in need, and that a society is judged by its treatment of strangers. At the same time the Church teaches respect for the rule of law, and instructs migrants to show deference to the societies that accept them. Are these not the basic principles on which a reasonable immigration policy could be built?

Every sovereign nation must control its own borders; if it does not control its borders, it is no longer sovereign. Any sensible debate on immigration will also require a recognition that the US, like every other nation, has a right and indeed a duty to regulate the terms under which foreigners may enter the country. Once we agree on that foundational principle, then—and only then—we might have a productive debate on what those terms should be.

Unfortunately, in the current American debate there is no agreement on that first point: no agreement on the need to regain control of our country’s borders. Immigration “doves” refuse to acknowledge that there are some excellent reasons for keeping people out of our country; immigration “hawks” imply that there are no good reasons for letting people in. Responsible arguments are drowned out in the clamor.

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: jackbene3651 - Jun. 23, 2018 1:55 PM ET USA

    I've noticed that the McCarrick wing of the Church is especially ready to condemn this kind of child abuse.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 22, 2018 9:21 PM ET USA

    Just curious, I hadn't heard the idea that "Trump thought that by separating children from their parents, he could illustrate how inflexible the Democrats have been." I thought it was all about rule of law and the lack of a true southern border. Some ownership has to be placed on parents that choose to break the law. Also while an executive order works, that not how our Government is supposed to work and they can be easily overturned (intentional?). The true fix is fo Congress to do their job.

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Jun. 20, 2018 6:07 PM ET USA

    The now ended policy was callous yet I wonder why it is so easy for our bishops to rush to the defense of children – except when they are being abused by their homosexual priests. Could it be antipathy to Trump? When the Obama administration had a similar policy of warehousing children I do not recall the bishops being so forceful in denouncing it. There is a problematic alignment between American Church leadership and the Democrat party that supports the gay agenda, open borders, globalist ideologies and climate alarmism.