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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

Mahony is correct on immigration

There’s a certain irony in the criticism leveled at Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony regarding his recent statements on the immigration legislation before Congress.

Referring to a provision of the House-passed immigration legislation, Mahony wrote in The New York Times March 22, “Providing humanitarian assistance to those in need should not be made a crime, as the House bill decrees. As written, the proposed law is so broad that it would criminalize even minor acts of mercy like offering a meal or administering first aid.”

Mahony said he would urge his priests to disobey such a provision should it become law.

The editors of the conservative National Review, in a March 23 editorial titled “Cardinal Errors,” challenged Mahony. “The cardinal points to a provision of the bill that makes it illegal to ‘assist’ an illegal immigrant to ‘remain in the United States.’ (The person providing such assistance would have to know, or recklessly disregard, the assistee’s legal status to have committed an offense, by the way, not that the cardinal shares that information with his readers.) That provision is directed at those who traffic in illegal immigrants.”

Conservatives frequently complain when judges abandon the plain language of a statute and substitute their own interpretation, or their view of the legislative history, for the actual words used by the legislators who wrote the law. But here they accuse Mahony (and by implication all church leaders, Catholic or otherwise, who have made the same point) of “bearing false witness” because the cardinal asserts that the House bill actually says what it says.

Thankfully, the immigration legislation approved March 27 by the Senate Judiciary Committee explicitly rejects the House’s effort to make humanitarian assistance a crime.

President Bush, who launched this debate two years ago, is treading politically treacherous terrain. To his right are the nativists -- the build-the-wall and Minuteman crowd -- whose passion outweighs their numbers but who also represent what is in some ways mainstream Republican thinking on immigration. To his left are the cheap-labor Chamber of Commerce types and, increasingly, evangelical Christian conservatives who take the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger seriously.

Perhaps it is his Texas roots, or his sympathy with business’ desire for people who will work cheaply, or his eye on the 40 percent of Hispanics who voted for him last time around -- the reason doesn’t really matter -- but the president has demonstrated a surprising level of nuance on this issue. “It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave their families and risk everything to come to America.” He’s right. And for his tone, if not every detail of his approach, the president should be applauded.

Mountains of misinformation and wrong impressions, however, have formed on either side of the debate. To hear some opponents of immigration reform, the United States has become downright hostile to any kind of immigration and at the service of those who want to close the door behind us. The fact is that immigration numbers have increased not only steadily but by significant percentages since 1970, when the United States was home to 9.6 million foreign-born residents. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the figure rose to 14.1 million in 1980; to 19.8 million in 1990; to 31.1 million in 2000; and to 33.5 million in 2003, a figure representing 11.7 percent of the U.S. population. That number does not include the undocumented.

At the same time, those who follow the lead of Republican Sen. Bill Frist see the entire matter in terms of security. More guards and guns and stricter enforcement will cost more, it will make some feel as if we’re doing something to control immigration and it will placate those who think we have to be tougher on lawbreakers.

But for the significant cost it will require, it will do nothing to get at the deeper issues: what Americans are willing to pay for planting and harvesting and other work now done by migrants; the revenue stream that Mexicans and other Latin Americans have become for their home countries; the effects of globalization that are, for instance, forcing people off farms in their home countries and into cities where there are no jobs.

In the two years since President Bush announced his intention to deal with immigration issues in a comprehensive fashion, the U.S. bishops and other members of the religious community have been among the most consistent and sensible advocates of true reform. Their focus has been threefold: Find a means to legalize the status of the 10 million to 12 million undocumented persons who live in the United States; provide a mechanism to allow additional foreign workers to come to the United States under conditions that protect their rights; and ease the restrictions on family reunification that currently exist for foreign-born permanent residents and citizens. The Senate bill, while imperfect, goes a long way to achieving each of those objectives.

Mahony, as a religious leader, has every right, even obligation, to raise issues of justice regarding immigrants and to announce that the church will not cooperate in draconian provisions of a proposed law. He is not telling people how to vote, nor is he using sacramental blackmail against legislators who might disagree.

He is using an argument straight from the church’s social justice tradition. And from the numbers that have turned out to demonstrate and the support he is receiving from the Catholic community and elsewhere, it seems to be a rather persuasive argument.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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