Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading this debate on illegal immigration from a religious worldview has brought up for me some thoughts about how as Americans our outlook on the issue is influenced by politics more than faith. How many Catholics, beholden to the Republican Party, turn their backs on their needy brothers and sisters in Christ and defend a nativist agenda that just 150 short years ago was used against their own ancestors by the same Protestant establishment that is driving the agenda in the present day? How many Episcopalians reject that bias of their ancestors in faith, driven more by their allegiance to the Democratic Party than any stirring of faith-based social justice? Just as with the issue of torture, our political leanings seem to matter much more than the churches and faith communities to which we belong when it comes to determining our positions on issues of great importance.

The indisputable fact, of course, is that things cannot continue the way they are now. Our current system not only creates an underclass that drives down wages for all laborers and violates the basic concepts of freedom upon which our nation was founded, but it also facilitates the entry of fugitives including violent criminals into our territory. Neither of these consequences is desirable to anyone who desires peace or justice. We must create a system that discourages illegal immigration while providing a just result for those who are here already. Many would argue that discouraging illegal immigration should be brought about by making it as difficult and painful to immigrate as is possible, to litter the desert with the corpses of failed attempts so that nobody will think of making the trip in the future. I would argue that the more humane solution is to eliminate the need to immigrate illegally at all. Our current immigration policy is backwards, it gives priority to those who don't have to leave their home countries in the first place while making the desperate wait much longer than they are able. The very fact that legal immigration can take several years would seem to remove it as a possibility for those who face imminent starvation or who flee violence or oppression. The ubiquitous image of immigrant day laborers in our cities and suburbs would seem to show that, if those in need were given a legal and fast avenue of immigration, they would show themselves to be industrious workers and would contribute greatly to our economic well-being. Removing these workers from the shadows, where they are easy prey for unscrupulous employers who force on them meager wages with the threat of deportation, would also solve the problem of wage deflation by allowing such workers to demand fair payment for their labor.

In contrast to the popular opinion, the Catholic Church's position on this issue is not motivated by self-interest. Many of the Latino immigrants into this country either arrive as Protestants or convert once they arrive due to heavy evangelization by those groups in urban areas, and there is also a growing Muslim population in the immigrant community. I'm sure there are also many Latino atheists and agnostics as well, due to the growing "evangelical" movement among the New Atheists. Even among those who remain Catholic, many are poor or at least not rich and after paying their bills and sending some money home to their families probably don't add enough to the collection plate to justify such claims of "self-serving" interest by the hierarchy. The Catholic Church is simply responding out of its concept of broad social justice, advocating for the dignity of the immigrant just as we would work to safeguard the rights of the unborn and the infirm.

We must work to create an immigration system that protects the territorial integrity of our nation while also safeguarding the dignity of those who feel no other choice but to flee their countries and enter ours. Perhaps we should focus on deporting those who engage in criminal activities, checking immigration status on those caught in police raids of gang organizations while allowing those who only desire a better life to live in peace. We are a nation of immigrants after all, and those who criticize Latino newcomers for not learning the language should remember that many of those who came in previous decades and centuries from countries like Poland and Italy also never learned it and left that aspect of assimilation to their children. Many of the children of Latino illegal immigrants understand English, learning it in their schools while their parents work multiple jobs to provide basic necessities and never have the chance at an education. We have a responsibility to our descendants to ensure that our country will be prosperous and safe in the future, but we also have an obligation to justice to ensure that our country will remain the "land of the free." This goal is not realized by turning our nation into a police state with identity papers and racial profiling, nor is it obtained by maintaining the status quo of second-class personhood and economic oppression. We must reform our immigration policy by making it more just, or else risk becoming a nation that will resemble those from which our immigrants are currently fleeing.

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