March 23, 2006,
The American Catholic bishops are waging an intense, sophisticated campaign to promote their version of immigration reform, which happens also to be big business's version of immigration reform. The campaign comes complete with brochures, a well-designed website, prayer cards, bracelets, and phony arguments.
In Wednesday's New York Times, Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles made his case. He not only opposes the House Republicans' immigration bill, which emphasizes enforcing the laws against illegal immigration, but has directed the priests of his archdiocese to disobey it if it becomes law. The bill, he writes, "would subject [priests], as well as other church and humanitarian workers, to criminal penalties." He adds, "Providing humanitarian assistance to those in need should not be made a crime, as the House bill decrees. As written, the proposed law is so broad that it would criminalize even minor acts of mercy like offering a meal or administering first aid."
If the House Republicans had proposed such a bill, they would deserve to be opposed. But they have not, and Cardinal Mahony is at least uncharitable in claiming that they have. The cardinal points to a provision of the bill that makes it illegal to "assist" an illegal immigrant to "remain in the United States." (The person providing such assistance would have to know, or recklessly disregard, the assistee's legal status to have committed an offense, by the way, not that the cardinal shares that information with his readers.) That provision is directed at those who traffic in illegal immigrants. Its language largely replicates existing legal provisions that have never been applied against charitable work. The cardinal has never raised any objection to the existing law, and indeed praises it in his op-ed.
Mahony writes, "Only comprehensive reform of the immigration system, embodied in the principles of another proposal in Congress, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration bill, will help solve our current immigration crisis." He is referring to the McCain-Kennedy legislation that (to characterize it polemically) would provide an amnesty for illegal immigrants here and raise immigration levels.
The cardinal's language ("What the church supports is. . .") may confuse the casual reader. Surely he is not suggesting that it follows from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church that a particular piece of legislation is the "only" way to "solve our current immigration crisis." That would be an absurd abuse of Mahony's teaching authority. Presumably what he means is that this legislation, in his judgment and the judgment of other bishops, best embodies the moral principles that the Church believes should govern immigration policy.
Those principles, if not every explication of them by the Church's bureaucracy, are sound. Illegal immigrants, like all other persons, should indeed be treated with dignity and respect. Enforcement of immigration laws should be humane. Refugees from persecution deserve protection. It is also true we quote one of the bishops' statements of principle that "sovereign nations have a right to control their borders." Faithful Catholics will disagree about what legislation would best apply these principles, just as they do in other areas. (So, for example, two Catholics who agree on the moral principle that unborn children should be protected in law might disagree about whether this should be done at the federal or state level.)
None of these principles, taken separately or together, are incompatible with the conclusion that we should be more serious about enforcing our immigration laws. A faithful Catholic might, indeed, reach the conclusion that the legitimate interests of this sovereign nation, and the dignity of immigrants, would best be protected by a reduction in legal-immigration levels which would go well beyond anything the House Republicans have proposed. He might even decide that a lax border policy, while serving some employers' interest in cheap labor, erodes the dignity of work, which Church teaching requires us to protect.
But whatever policy he deems most consonant with the Church's moral teachings, as he participates in the debate over that policy he will do his best not to bear false witness even against Republican congressmen.