The Pilgrim Church Takes a Pro-Immigrant Stand

YOU MIGHT BE FORGIVEN if you were to mistake the Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 with a talking-points summary of “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” a pastoral letter released jointly by the Catholic bishops’ conferences of the United States and Mexico in 2003. Most of its major themes and specific concerns about clarifying the status of undocumented people are clearly reflected in the reform package, which passed after much wrangling by the Senate in late May.

The U.S. bishops have long advocated a viable path to citizenship for the undocumented, more generous family reunification policies, and a temporary worker program “that protects both U.S. and foreign-born workers.” All of these components are addressed in the Senate’s reform proposal.

That is no coincidence, says Kevin Appleby, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Department of Migration and Refugee Services. He says church lobbyists and statements were a notable force in the crafting of the McCain-Kennedy legislation. Equally notable has been the resistance of church leaders to the “other” immigration package, an enforcement-only set of proposals out of the House of Representatives.

At press time, House Republicans planned nationwide hearings on immigration reform proposals, potentially putting off compromise legislation until after the November elections.

The pilgrim church’s pro-immigrant stance should not come as a surprise, says Appleby. The U.S. church was, after all, built by immigrants.

Even as the bishops agree in statements like “Strangers No Longer” that nations have the right, the obligation even, to control their borders, they argue that right must be balanced against “the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights.”

According to the letter, in a world where global poverty and persecution are rampant, “the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible.” In essence, migration itself is a human right we are called to respect.

Given the country’s low unemployment and tacit acceptance of low-cost, undocumented labor across a gamut of economic sectors, Appleby says it is disingenuous to argue that the U.S. does not have the capacity to absorb the millions of paperless migrants already living within its borders. “We’ve got this powerful magnet: jobs. As soon as someone gets in, they’re rewarded with a job.”

And it’s worth remembering, Appleby says, that the church also teaches that “people should have the right not to migrate at all, that they should be able to stay in their homes and stay with their families, find work and live with dignity, but that’s just not the case in our world today.”

Millions are on the move all over the world escaping poverty and violence, Appleby says. “This is a global issue . . . and until we get an economic world where there is more equity, that’s going to continue to happen.

“We think that Mexico and other sending nations need to pay more attention to their low-skilled workers and create jobs that generate a living wage for them, but we have to also look at how our trade policies, our debt policies, our foreign aid policies contribute to the problem, too.”

In the meantime, it is the moral responsibility of the world’s wealthy countries to make room at the national inn for economic or political sojourners. That doesn’t mean, however, that the U.S. is morally compelled to open its borders to all comers. “There are no absolutes here; it is more of a balancing,” Appleby says. “A nation first has a responsibility to the common good of its people, but there’s also such a thing as a universal common good it is responsible to as well.

“We also need to show compassion to the people who are here even if they have broken the law.” The current debate offers a good opportunity to decide, he says, if U.S. immigration laws themselves are just or broken beyond repair. Which is more unjust: people crossing imaginary lines called borders or being told they have to remain in poverty and suffering because of those imaginary lines?

“God did not create the world with borders,” says Appleby. “It is because our world is imperfect that we have borders.”—Kevin Clarke

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