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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

First, seek justice for the undocumented

No one expects the debates over subjects like Catholic identity or what makes us Catholic or what presence Catholics should have in the public square to be resolved quickly. In the meantime, though, there are those moments so quintessentially Catholic that they rise above debate.

One of those times occurred recently when about a thousand parishioners in the Los Angeles area agreed to fast one day a week for a month and to pray for reform of immigration regulations and in opposition to harsh legislation that would make criminals of undocumented immigrants and those who help them.

The group was led in that commitment by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who took particular aim at a piece of federal legislation that passed the House and now goes to the Senate. The bill would make it a criminal offense to be an illegal immigrant or to help undocumented immigrants in any way (see Page 3). The proposed law represents an ugly extreme in the debate over what to do about securing our borders and how to treat the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States, most from Mexico and other areas of Latin America.

The U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services speaks movingly of the need for some manner of legalizing undocumented aliens who, in many cases, have invested heavily in the hope of the American dream and have participated as essential workers in the U.S. economy.

In a 2002 statement, the office cited Pope John Paul II, who said during the Jubilee Year of 2000 that “a significant gesture would certainly be one in which reconciliation, a genuine dimension of the Jubilee, is expressed in a form of amnesty for a broad group of these immigrants who suffer the tragedy of precariousness and uncertainty more than others, namely, illegal immigrants.”

Unfortunately, the talk about undocumented migrants has become tangled with the language of security and painted with the broad brush of terrorist threats. In reality, of course, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are here for the same reasons that so many of our own ancestors pulled up stakes and, facing uncertainty, underwent treacherous journeys to get here.

It is ironic that in an increasingly global world, we feel more and more threatened by the movement of peoples across borders. Some of that fear is justified. It is difficult to feel comfortable with a situation that seems out of control and that will not yield to laws or force.

The statement by the Office of Migration & Refugee Policy addresses the deeper problem: “Until such time as the global community effectively addresses the root causes of undocumented migration, individual nations must confront the presence of the undocumented in a manner which upholds the dignity and basic human rights of all immigrants, regardless of their legal status.”

“Globalization” sounds big and inclusive, but in too many instances it merely means commerce of one sort or another. If it is to mean more than the exploitation of resources, goods, services and people, then it must contain an element of justice. Any consideration of secure borders and immigration policy must begin, as the bishops argue, with “a call for legalization opportunities for the maximum number of undocumented persons, particularly those who have built equities and otherwise contributed to their communities.”

We need to put the penalties on the back burner and begin by administering justice of a different sort.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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