The U.S. is in the throes of an Immigration Crisis that it is ill equipped to handle, given the extreme bipartisan non-cooperation (or is it ennui?) in both houses of Congress, a grossly ill prepared President, and a populace largely underserved by public education and unaware of systemic protections to elitist power. Members of Catholic communities are split on responses to the crisis since many have been convinced that southern border immigrants and immigrants from predominantly Islamic nations pose a threat to US citizens’ comfort and reveal intolerance with “others”. Unfortunately, many simply ignore the history of theft, murder, enslavement, segregation, and other oppressions that built this nation by backbreaking labor in fields, factories, and homes for those with “choice” and privilege. Clearly, those who were enslaved had no choice, immigrants ventured the distance with hope, but those arriving now –as displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers—face the unfamiliar with despair. How are we Catholic ethicists in the US to respond in the face of the crisis at our southern border?
If Catholics in the U.S. are to unite and effectively campaign for immigrant justice, regardless of their legal status, arguments about the Immigration Crisis need to be understood so as to explain and to refute them well. We ethicists have to be prepared and know the arguments against (more and merciful) open borders as thoroughly as time and energy allow. And we ethicists are encouraged to commit to social activism (consider the Facebook posts of “Catholic Social Thought, Politics, and the Public Square” and “Ethicists without Borders” among other groups for ideas on what to do or where to start).
Current U.S. Government practice on immigration is a product of an administration that enjoys the support of many Catholics: 48% of the Catholic vote went to Donald Trump. Trump-voting Catholics try to justify their support with a number of arguments. Having listened carefully to such persons and their concerns, we summarize their arguments here (admittedly, Ramon lives in Arizona, a southwestern state that has an ambivalent love-hate relationship with its border neighbors in Mexico, where the debates he encounters often reflect a personal stake among his interlocutors in the outcome).
Catholics who support the current government policy of Zero-Tolerance for those crossing the US-Mexico border illegally say that the policy is an overt enforcement of the law that permits entry only to those persons with paperwork. Form DSP-150, B-1/B-2 Visa or a valid passport and a Border Crossing Card issued by the US Department of State grants legal admission of Mexican citizens to the US; persons from other nations may be granted entry by a Visa (or Visa Waiver Program status) plus a valid passport. Supporters argue “simply” that the policy is upholding the law by returning those seeking entry illegally to their places, their properly papered legal context, i.e., their home countries.
The logic of enforcement exposes a failure to recognize the desperation experienced by most of those attempting to reach safety over the U.S. border without papers: these immigrants are seeking refuge in the U.S. to escape poverty or, more troubling, the well-documented violence in their homelands. They are not coming to the U.S. for vacation or criminal gain but for the promises that “This Land” holds for them and their families. To “place” them back in their home countries would risk their death. But, they argue, the law’s intent is U.S. protection; if death awaits them home, it is not our fault. Yet, this outcome is more than likely for many and the U.S. may be complicit in their deaths. Sadly, many Zero Tolerance supporters reject attempts to nuance discussion with information on the terror that threatens individuals and families at home. Similarly, their appeal to the law exposes a failure to recognize the thoroughgoing bias since colonial times against and social, political, and (assumed) legal constructions of inferiority and danger about people of color at the border now.
Catholics who support current policy argue also from a logic that compares the number of deaths at the border to deaths that result from abortion. Since abortion kills more people than those killed or who die of dehydration or traumatic injury on the border, it is more important, they argue, to follow the policies of and lend support to the political party that best verbalizes opposition to abortion. This logic exposes the failures of a single-issue voting platform popular during the 2016 campaign season and affirmed through the election until now; it exposes also how such a narrowly conceived protection of vulnerable life co-opts Catholic teaching for an agenda of xenophobia and isolationism. Moreover, a methodology of utilitarianism is at play in manipulating the conscience of the nation, at least until national and international news broadcast in visual, talk, and print media the separation of children and babies from their parents. Nevertheless, utilitarianism could go another way if the maximum benefits possible were extended to all who are vulnerable (but the preferential option for the majority of people remains deliberately elusive).
When Catholic social teaching is raised about the right of persons to immigrate and emigrate, Catholics who support current administration policy insist that those rights imply legal immigration and emigration. However, as the USCCB affirms, “A country’s regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by concern for all people and by mercy and justice. A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others. A sincere commitment to the needs of all must prevail” (Third Principle). The right of countries to defend their borders is always trumped by universal human rights to life. The majority of persons on our border and whose families are being separated and incarcerated are Catholics and with them we U.S. Catholics profess that our one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church transcends borders and nation states. To remind those who are placing law and national security over Christ and his Church requires breaking down their legal and philosophical walls that support current government policy and replacing them with justice for immigrants, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and asylum seekers.