Roman Catholic Perspective

What are Catholics in the pews to make of their bishops’ costly, all-out commitment to a version of immigration reform that would swell today’s high legal immigration, undermine workers’ bargaining power and do little to curb future illegal entries?

The bishops’ lobbying goals for immigration are radical, expansive, and generous to a fault. They explicitly endorse the two guest worker programs, amnesty for illegals, and lavish increases in regular family and employment immigration in Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy’s proposed legislation — the Safe America and Orderly Immigration Act (SAOIA). (Many of the provisions of this bill had been incorporated into other Senate immigration bills by early 2006.) The bill’s breathtakingly expansionist proposals, and its paucity of serious border control and enforcement measures, suggest that US Catholic Conference lobbyists did their work well in the drafting.

Using a guest worker program as political cover, the Kennedy-McCain bill and similar others would in effect amnesty ten to eleven million illegal immigrants that settled here before May 2005. Without waiting to see the labor market and fiscal effects of that mass amnesty, Kennedy-McCain adds on 400,000 or more guest workers a year from abroad. Both categories of guest workers and their dependents would be eligible to apply for legal permanent residence after four years here.

That waiting period is necessary to support the fiction of the bill’s backers and the bishops that this arrangement is not a widely opposed “amnesty,” but “earned legalization.” The employment category of regular immigration visas for skilled and unskilled aliens would more than double to 290,000 a year. Immigration of relatives of citizens and resident aliens would nearly double from its present ceiling of 480, 000. Kennedy-McLain, according to some estimates, would raise overall immigration to 25 million over the next ten years.

But the bishops’ wish list does not stop with Kennedy-McCain. They want much kinder, gentler — and less stringent — immigration enforcement. Their congressional testimony, speeches and statements in recent years claim that the existing US immigration system “ . . .which can lead to family separation, suffering and even death, is morally unacceptable and must be reformed.” The bishops also express increasing concern that “. . . the U.S. immigration regime violates basic human dignity and has placed the lives of migrants at risk.”1

The implication of these categorical moral judgments is that responsibility for the migration chaos is America’s alone: the poor choices of the migrants themselves and their governments, the recklessness of some migrants, and the greed of the smugglers and other predators are not major factors in the family separation, injury and death the bishops deplore.

Nor do the bishops display any recognition that U.S. policymakers and enforcement officials also have considerable concerns for human rights of migrants, as well as conscientious procedures and safeguards to protect them, often with some sacrifice of the efficiency or personal security of enforcement agents.

As remedies to Washington’s presumed violations of human dignity, the bishops now or earlier have called for

  • intensive training of border patrol agents (as if they now receive none) in “cultural awareness, and appropriate enforcement tactics and use of force;”
  • no shackling and lengthy detentions of those apprehended, particularly minors, and no denial of access to asylum petitioning.
  • no anti-terrorism policies which unjustly impact all immigrants, and no ethnic or racial profiling;
  • no involvement of state and local police in immigration enforcement.
  • no sanctions on employers of illegal aliens2

Church leaders have also protested the tough enforcement provisions in the House of Representatives’ Sensenbrenner bill, enacted in December, 2005 (HR 4437). A particular target has been the bill’s provision expanding the definition of criminal acts of harboring and assisting illegal alien to cover private civic and charitable groups. Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the key voice in the Justice for Immigrants lobbying campaign, said “the whole concept of punishing people who serve immigrants is un-American” . . . “We are not about to become immigration agents.” Mahony warned that he would instruct his priests to defy the legislation if it is enacted.3

Left unstated is that much of Catholic Charities’ services to immigrants, legal and illegal, is financed by generous government grants, fees and contracts. Under this faustian bargain, about two-thirds of Catholic Charities’ budget of $33.5 million for Mahony’s Los Angeles Archdiocese in 2003 came from government grants, fees and contracts for services, including refugee resettlement and community outreach to immigrant groups.

Catholic Charities and their spin-offs and subsidiaries.

Other major dioceses receive comparable government infusions.4 The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a major litigator against the government’s immigration enforcement and regulatory procedures, in 2004 received 21 percent of its revenues from government grants and fees.

Nationally, in 2003 about 60 percent of Catholic Charities income — some $1.78 billion — came from federal, state and local government. While the U.S. bishops are well rewarded by the government to be “immigration facilitators,” that funding apparently carries for them no corresponding obligation to be “immigration agents.” Not surprisingly, the bishops’ lobbying goals include a call for the engagement of “non-profit legal agencies” in implementing a new program of immigration reform. One is reminded of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning that “No one has the right to be unselfish with other people’s interests.”5

The hierarchy from the Pope down has from time to time acknowledged the right of sovereign states to control their borders. But the numerous conditions the churchmen have invoked would seriously vitiate this right. The enforcement prohibitions, such as those demanded above, suggest that bishops would like to condition this sovereign prerogative of states right out of existence. Their present position seems to be a strong presumption of a right to immigrate, with the burden on governments to prove that such entries would be unduly harmful. A recent expression of this view is the joint pastoral letter of U.S. and Mexican bishops:

The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories, but rejects such control when it is exercised merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth.

. . . All goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country or origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.6

Under these formulations, policies by the U.S. to increase the earnings of its own low-wage residents by restricting immigration would be a “purpose of acquiring additional wealth” and therefore illicit. .

The bishops apparently feel no reticence about writing detailed prescriptions for a temporal social problem that is more in the realm of Caesar than of God. They also engage in a remarkable degree of micromanagement considering their general lack of first hand experience with law enforcement.

The bishops make two other appeals that are well-worn gambits in two generations of immigration debate. The first is a truism: that the country should provide more legal opportunities to work in the U.S. to ease the “perceived” need for a blockade enforcement policy. More opportunities for legal immigration is a tautological solution that is hard to quarrel with. With the stroke of a legislative pen, illegal immigration could indeed be defined out of existence — along with any pretense of immigration limits.

The second lofty appeal is also unexceptionable but in fact a prescription for non-action: the country should address the “root causes” of migration with more enlightened trade and assistance policies toward sending countries.

Getting at the “root causes” has long been a rhetorical way of turning the debate away from practical enforceable limits in the present toward the notion of long-term gradual solution through inevitable growth toward prosperity and justice. The Clinton administration successfully used this logic in the 1990s as a major selling point for the North American Free Trade Association, the enactment of which has been followed by vast new waves of migrants from Mexico.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 spawned a high level Commission on Migration and Cooperative Economic Development which labored over root causes for months. The Commission endorsed the idea of NAFTA, but otherwise it had no visible effect on U.S. development policy toward Latin America.

Similarly, Kennedy-McCain includes proposals for economic cooperation and support for Mexico and other sending countries. Sadly, because of extremely rapid labor force growth, relentless corruption, and serious macroeconomic setbacks in the 80s and 90s, the push factors in Mexico are stronger now than two decades ago. Everyone wants to see Mexico more prosperous and democratic. But effective enforcement cannot be delayed while we wait indefinitely for this to happen.

All the bishops’ proposals are rooted in genuine concern for the welfare and safety of a migrant population they have increasingly embraced as special clients in recent decades — the objects of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” The bishops’ ideal immigration policy is made in heaven. And that is its biggest problem. Legislators and citizens live and work in the secular City of Man, with its ecology of greed, compromise, ideals, conflicts, fears, limits, and the unending search for individual and community security.

The bishops’ project offers us an illusory regime where traffic signals are always green, where violence and fraud are overcome by trust and good will, and where a cornucopian vision of the United States has no place for fears about job and housing shortages, overburdened schools, conservation of resources and overpopulation. But Catholic thought is not entirely cornucopian. Pope Leo XIII and other pontiffs have acknowledged that overpopulation can indeed occur, causing unemployment and other hardships justifying emigration. Yet there is no recognition that the United States, with the most rapidly growing population in the industrial west, acts legitimately when limiting immigration to deal with its own unemployment and wage stagnation.

More troubling is the sight of a Church hierarchy so long associated with distributive justice and workers’ welfare allied in its lobbying effort with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the “Essential Workers Immigration Coalition” and its array of major rent-seeking industry interest groups, which fan fears of unproven labor shortages and regard guest workers as another commodity to lower the cost of labor. Is the driving concern of those allies the dignity of workers?

The lobbying goals are a puzzling departure from the Church’s past positions on guest worker programs. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the bishops were in the forefront of the successful fight to end the “Bracero” migrant labor agreement with Mexico. The labor priest, Monsignor George Higgins of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and Archbishop Patrick Lucey of San Antonio7 , touched the conscience of millions of Christians with their exposures of the corruption, exploitation of both Mexican and American workers, and the agreement’s corrosive effects on the labor standards of poor workers in the Southwest. In the late 1970’s Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh, as Chair of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, reaffirmed this opposition to guest worker programs.

Have the bishops become just one more contentious, rent-seeking interest group in pressing for radical immigration reforms? High immigration has been good business for the American bishops. Tax-free government grants and contracts to Church charities serving refugees and immigrants are worth several hundred million yearly, further strengthening Church patronage and influence.

It’s unsurprising that bishops want to align themselves with their large and growing Hispanic constituency, which a number of Church leaders have hailed as the future of the Church. (Some 42 percent of all new immigrants are Catholic.) If growth is their goal, the bishops should take into account that their Hispanic contingent has youth and high fertility, insuring continued growth even if mass immigration is slowed. And many of the same young U.S.-born Hispanics are children of earlier immigrants and now have a claim on America’s protection of their labor, educational and housing standards.

The Church will need all this clout and more if its “Justice for Immigrants” campaign is to make rank and file Catholics abandon their preference for limited immigration and accept mass immigration as a moral imperative. Polls show considerable resistance to mass immigration among American Catholics — increasingly even among Hispanics. In 2005, 54 percent of Arizona’s Catholics supported proposition 200, a referendum to deny non-federally funded services to illegal aliens. Some 52 percent of California’s Catholics backed a similar referendum in 1994 in California. A 2003 poll by Pew Research Center showed that 79 percent of Catholics agreed completely or mostly with the proposition that: “We should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now.” Sixty-two percent of Hispanic Catholics agreed with this proposition.8

Is the “common good” to be served by immigration policy something that is more clearly grasped by religious leaders than other citizens? Some of the prelates’ rhetoric implies that they view Catholic social doctrine as readily applicable revelatory truth. Concerned Catholics may be confused by the frequent and selective use of biblical proof texts by advocates of mass immigration. Such words as “be kind to the alien among you, for you were once aliens (Deuteronomy),“ and “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew) “ appeal to the best in all of us and deserve our making them real in our personal behavior. But they don’t make very good guides to concrete policy choices. Somehow the society-transforming mass transfers of population that the U.S. and Mexican bishops favor just don’t seem to be what the ancient authors of scripture had in mind.

Compared to the moral certainties of the bishops, our secular nation is more humble about the democratic process, more mindful of government’s custodial role of present and future national interests and as mediator of the wide range of stubborn, competing visions of the “common good.” Christian realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr best described the dilemma.

The farther one moves from a principle of the commandment of love to detailed applications in particular situations, the more hazardous the decision becomes, and the more impossible it is to compel others to a similar conviction by appeal to a common faith . . . Christians must make these hazardous political decision with the full recognition that others equally devoted to the common good my arrive at contrary conclusions.9

Authored by David Simcox, former Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, March 2006



[1] Testimony of Most. Rev. Gerald Barnes, Chairman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ‘ Committee on Migration before the Senate Judiciary Committee, July 26, 2005. USCCB Committee on Migration, Washington, DC.

[2] Testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee of Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J. on Behalf of the the U.S. Catholic Conference on “Legislation to Repeal Employer Sanctions” (S.1734). April 3, 1992

[3] Immigrants Gain the Pulpit, Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2006

[4] www.guidestar.org. Search on “Catholic Charities of Los Angeles” for INS form 990. Site accessed March 21, 2006.

[5] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Scribners, 1960

[6] Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope; A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States. USCCB, January 22, 2003

[7] Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “BISHOPS’ COMMITTEE FOR HISPANIC AFFAIRS.” www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/BB/icb5.html, accessed March 16, 2006

[8] The Pew Center, The 2004 Political Landscape, Question Q28N, page 2, Released November 5, 2003. For cross - tab for hispanic catholics, see: James C. Russell, Breach of Faith: American Churches and the Immigration Crisis. Raleigh, NC: Representative Government Press, 2004.

[9] R. Niebuhr, Love and Justice . : Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith1976, p. 60