The USCCB Should Follow the Catechism on Immigration

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By Kevin Clark, Crisis Magazine, Sept. 7. 2017

The bishops of the United States roundly condemned President Trump’s new plan to possibly end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in six months unless the Congress passes legislation to authorize the program. (Trump is only possibly ending it since he tweeted later that he will revisit the issue if Congress does not make DACA constitutional by passing legislation allowing children of illegals to stay in the country.) The statement from the USCCB does not mince words nor admit of gradation nor leave space for pastoral discernment: “The cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible. …This decision is unacceptable and does not reflect who we are as Americans.”

One could make a moral argument that if President Trump believes that he does not have the authority to make immigration law but is required to enforce the law as it is, then his decision to have Congress legislate on the issue is a rather reasonable act. Before announcing his executive action on DACA, then-President Obama repeatedly said that he did not have the authority to change the law unilaterally. President Obama said at one point that he wasn’t king of the country, and couldn’t act in that way—then he did it anyway. As citizens of the United States, one would think that the bishops would be at least open to the idea that immigration law should be set by Congress, which is endowed by the Constitution with the authority to make law. If you think DACA is a good idea, then clearly you should want it backed by duly enacted law, and not by a questionably legal executive order.

But the immigration issue and Church teaching is much larger than just this one issue. When President Trump issued an executive order earlier this year denying federal funds to “sanctuary cities” if they do not cooperate with federal authorities, Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement in opposition. Local bishops have also denounced state laws in Mississippi and Texas that aim at curbing sanctuary cities or universities.

The bishops also oppose The Wall. Earlier this year, Bishop Vásquez wrote, “I am disheartened that the President has prioritized building a wall on our border with Mexico. This action will put immigrant lives needlessly in harm’s way. Construction of such a wall will only make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers.”

Yet, the USCCB denies that it favors open borders. In January of 2011, the USCCB issued a document on enforcement of immigration laws that states, “Opponents of both lawful and unauthorized immigration often inaccurately criticize the Catholic Church as supportive of ‘open borders’ in an attempt to discredit the strength of Church’s voice in the immigration policy dialogue.”

The USCCB document goes on to state that immigration enforcement is licit if it is targeted, proportional, and humane. Regarding “targeted,” the statement says “U.S. enforcement interventions and resources should be narrowly-tailored, focusing on the dangerous and criminal elements. U.S. enforcement should not rely upon ethnic and racial profiling and should not be so overly broad as to curtail basic rights. Improvements in intelligence, information sharing, and border security technology would help ensure that those who are most dangerous—smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists—are intercepted.”

From the above, it would appear that the USCCB favors only enforcing immigration laws against dangerous felons. From the USCCB statement, no more general right of nations to control the flow of immigration would seem possible.

Yet, this position does not seem consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states,

The 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. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (#2241)

The phrase “to the extent they are able” is obviously a prudential judgment, and as such would need to be exercised by legitimate political authority. The ability of a country to accept immigrants would not be limited by mere physical space, or even by economic opportunities, but also by such issues as the ability to assimilate immigrants in such a way as to maintain peace and social cohesion.

By asserting that “juridical conditions” may be enforced, the Catechism further makes it clear that prudential concerns can legitimately limit immigration.

If such issues were not subject to political discernment, and the Church meant to teach that countries can only interdict violent felons, then the Catechism would presumably take away the possibility of judgment and merely condemn restrictions on immigration. Yet, it does not do so. By using the language of political judgment and the common good to determine the number and conditions under which a country will admit immigrants, the Catechism clearly implies that some would-be immigrants may be excluded. And if there is a limit to the number of immigrants, or if some immigrants cannot comply with reasonable conditions, then a country will need to enforce immigration laws. Whether the number of immigrants is 1, or 1 million, or 10 million per year then eventually the limit could be reached. And once that limit is reached, someone will be stopped at the border or deported once already in the country.

According to the document released in 2011, the USCCB “supports … comprehensive immigration reform which includes an enforcement component.” But any comprehensive reform would certainly limit the number of immigrants, and not simply exclude violent felons. The US currently accepts around 1 million immigrants per year. Even if the United States doubled, tripled, or quadrupled that number, there would still be some people who would not qualify under whatever rules were set. There would still be some people sneaking across the border and working illegally. There would still be border patrols that would force immigrants to seek alternative, and possibly more dangerous, entry points—which the USCCB denounces as inhumane. If the USCCB opposes any and all meaningful enforcement, then it necessarily denies a country’s right to determine the number and condition of immigrants it will admit.

The position of the USCCB that enforcement be limited only to violent felons is neither politically realistic nor consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And, although the bishops say they don’t favor open borders, a policy of limitless immigration and a border patrol that aims only at stopping violent felons is about as close as you can get to an open border without crossing it.

At least some of the opposition to immigration reform may be born of a feeling that the end game of reform is simply an open border, which leads some to oppose nearly any reform.

If the USCCB were to advocate solutions that are more politically feasible and closer to the official teaching of the Catholic Church, perhaps it would be more likely to find common ground and make reasonable reform more possible.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Cardinal Dolan and other New York City luminaries speaking in defense of DACA at a press conference at City Hall following an announcement by the Trump Administration that the program may be cancelled.  (Photo credit: Crux)