An Immigration Debate Primer

Published May 19, 2010

It's hard to imagine a more depressing spectacle in contemporary American public life than the immigration reform “debate.” What a friend who's bailing out of the mainstream media recently deplored over lunch as “bumper-sticker politics” dominates the so-called “public discourse” on the question, and, truth to tell, some prominent Catholics have added more heat than light to the mix. How might Catholic social doctrine and a Catholic optic on politics turn the mutual exchange of rhetorical barrages into a real national conversation? Herewith some preliminary thoughts:

– Catholic political theory places a high value on the rule of law, which it regards as morally superior to the alternative, which is the rule of willfulness imposed by brute force.

– The laws we make through our elected representatives are under the scrutiny of the natural moral law we can know by reason, which means that our political judgments should be rational, not glandular.

– The inalienable dignity and value of every human being from conception until natural death is the bedrock personalist principle from which Catholic thinking about public policy begins. The dignity does not confer an absolute right on anyone to live wherever he or she chooses. A proper Catholic understanding of limited and constitutional government grasps that the state — which in the American case means the national government — has a right to enforce its citizenship laws and a duty to conduct that enforcement in a just way.

– With the exception of our Native American brethren, every Catholic in the United States today is the descendant of immigrants (in my case, from Germany in the early- and mid-19th century). This demographic fact, which reflects the national tradition of hospitality to the stranger, should create a predisposition to be pro-immigrant within the Catholic community in America. That the vast majority of Catholics in the United States today are law-abiding citizens whose economic and social well-being is made possible by living within a law-governed political community should incline us to live that pro-immigrant predisposition through the mediation of the rule of law.

– It is absurd to suggest that the United States has become xenophobic, racist, or anti-immigrant. Last year, as my colleague Robert Royal pointed out in a recent article, the United States naturalized one million new citizens, most of them from Mexico, and over the past decade we have naturalized another ten million people who have worked their way through the system legally. Millions more are in the legal immigration pipeline or are working in the United States with legal permits. If these are the marks of a racist or xenophobic nation, it's a nation that displays its racism and xenophobia in very odd ways.

– The canons of justice dictate that people should not be rewarded for law-breaking, and that is what illegal immigrants do: they break the law. Realism dictates that we cannot send some 10 to 20 million illegal immigrants home. The present situation — border porousness, which is exploited by criminals as well as by those looking for work; a large population of illegals; millions of people seeking U.S. citizenship while playing by the rules — is intolerable. Any morally acceptable solution to immigration reform will address all three facets of the present mess.

– Responsible citizens who wish to be generous and uphold the rule of law and create a solution to the problem of illegals that doesn't divide families or otherwise treat unjustly those who have, as Bob Royal put it, “taken advantage of a situation we Americans have allowed to exist for too long” should demand that politicians stop playing the demagogue on this issue. Responsible citizens, while understanding the angers of fellow-citizens along the southern border of the United States who are appalled at the situation they face on a daily basis and while demanding that the government fulfill its duty to protect the border, will also appeal to the common sense of their neighbors who imagine that deportation is a real-world solution.

Within these principles and facts, I suggest, lies an acceptable, if not perfect, solution to immigration reform.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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