A Chance for Immigration Reform
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2013

For years the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for comprehensive immigration reform and for just as many years Congress has failed to fix the nation’s broken immigration system. Instead of authentic reform, the nation has been subjected to costly enforcement measures that have failed to stop unauthorized entry and have hurt families and communities.

The federal government has spent $150 billion on enforcement since 2000, but the number of undocumented has increased from 7 million in 2000 to 11 million today.  Sixteen billion dollars was spent last year on immigration enforcement, which is more than was spent by any other enforcement agency in the federal government. A record 411,000 immigrants were deported last year, with about 100,000 parents deported and separated from their U.S. – citizen children.  Clearly, an enforcement-only immigration policy does not work.

The bishops do not seek a more humane immigration system solely because church in the United States has an immigrant history or because most migrants today are Catholic, though that history and experience is relevant. Bishops and lay leaders witness first-hand the failings and injustices of the current system. That experience provides working knowledge of what will and will not work as a solution. God has actually instructed us to draw from our immigrant experience when it comes to own treatment of immigrants. Repeatedly, God told the Israelites to love and treat the alien with justice “for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.” (Dt. 10:19; cf. Ex. 22:21, 23:9, Lv 19:34, Dt. 23:7.)

Experience is important, but the bishops’ position is also rooted in the natural law and the church’s social doctrine. The Catechism states: “ . . . more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” (No. 2241.) Denver archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, in an address to Regis University on immigration, reminded his audience that the right to migration is rooted in the natural law. He noted that Pope Pius XII reflected that “the natural law itself…urges that ways of migration be opened to…those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.” 

In addition, there are the principles of Catholic social doctrine that apply to all public policies. Immigration policies, like any other policy, must give priority to the life and dignity of the human person, especially the family. They must respect the right to seek work and to work in humane conditions. They cannot be shaped solely by economic considerations. They cannot be tarnished by racism, nativism, or elitism, but must respect the equal dignity of all human persons.

The bishops have identified several elements that a reform measure should include. The California bishops recently, and succinctly, identified them as:

  1. An earned path to full legal status, and eventual citizenship, that is reasonable and attainable;
  2. Provision for immigrants brought here as minors to swiftly gain legal status to continue their education and enter the workforce;
  3. The reduction of immigration application backlogs so that families may be united more quickly;
  4. A temporary worker program that is safe, workable for families, and fair to all workers, immigrants and non-immigrants, alike;
  5. Restoration of due process protections restored for all immigrants involved with the immigration justice system;
  6. The protection of refugees and unaccompanied immigrant children; and
  7. A way of addressing the root causes of immigration.

For the first time in a long while, there exists a real possibility that Congress and the President may enact comprehensive reform. The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has crafted an immigration reform blueprint for the Senate that may provide a vehicle for true reform. The U.S. bishops have responded to the proposal with optimism, though a final position will depend on the legislation’s details.

Let us pray that our nation will finally commit to a just and human immigration system.