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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

Beyond status quo on immigration

There are moments, periods of time that represent watersheds in modern American political life. One thinks of Lyndon Johnson’s comments to Bill Moyers immediately after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “It’s an important gain,” Johnson told his young White House assistant, “but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Johnson was correct. And the implications for the United States, and thus for the world, have been enormous.

It is evident, based on events of the last month on the issue of immigration, that we are living through such a point in time right now. America’s immigrants -- legal and illegal, documented and undocumented -- aim to be part of our country’s political, economic and cultural mainstream. Welcome this, reject it or ignore it; it doesn’t matter. It is happening. And the consequences for the United States, and thus for the world, are large.

The U.S. bishops, spiritual leaders of the largest and fastest-growing segment of the country’s immigrant population, have placed themselves squarely and prophetically on the side of those who seek a better life for themselves and their families. It is a matching of the moment and the men. The bishops came to this debate prepared. Their 2003 joint pastoral letter with Mexico’s bishops not only put them firmly on record in favor of liberalized immigration policies, but its development also educated them about the intricacies of a complicated topic. Without resort to punishment or anathema (no bishop, to our knowledge, has threatened to withhold Communion from a Catholic politician who disagrees with them), the bishops -- conservative, liberal, traditionalist and progressive -- have taken Gospel values into the public arena and had a genuine impact on the debate. Well done.

Powerful elements of the Republican Party -- despite the efforts of President Bush, Sens. John McCain and Sam Brownback and others -- seem intent on destroying a key element of the electoral coalition Karl Rove has worked so hard to put together. Bush received 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, a Republican record, in 2004; reduce that number substantially and John Kerry sits in the Oval Office. Do Republicans really support alienating millions of culturally conservative voters -- the fastest growing voting bloc in the country -- because of the intolerant and, yes, bigoted, rhetoric of their nativist caucus? It happened on a smaller scale in 1994 in California with the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. The Republican Party there has never recovered. Today, the party’s wiser heads understand the dynamic and are working to mitigate its worst aspects. But it may be too late.

Immigration provides the Democrats with a long-sought opportunity in the faith community. Pro-choice Democrats, at least those sensitive to the religious community’s opposition or unease with liberal abortion laws, frequently argue that Christian “values” should include a range of issues -- health care, education and housing among them. The problem with that argument is that these concerns are largely abstract, items in a trillion-dollar federal budget where compromises are made and winners and losers anticipated. Immigration is different. It involves real people -- neighbors, family members, friends, coworkers, employees, schoolmates -- who have a tremendous amount at stake. Immigration makes the values debate concrete in a way that “full funding for Head Start” or “stop the cuts in Medicaid” never can.

It’s true, of course, that shades of gray remain, just as they did in 1964. Maybe Johnson could have done something to keep at least some of the solid South in the Democratic fold (though it’s hard to imagine what that might have been). And maybe Republican nativists will be relegated to the kookier AM frequencies of talk radio, with the party’s more sensible voices taking center stage in this debate.


What is clear is that the status quo is unacceptable, built on deception and exploitative of millions of people. Some of the bigoted attitudes are couched in the language of law: “We are a country of laws,” some say, or “Criminals are criminals,” or “We live by the rule of law,” so illegal immigrants should get out. Laws, however, are only useful to the extent that they make sense and are enforceable. The laws, as they now stand, don’t work, and everyone knows it. Further, they can’t be made to work, not with so many tangled interests -- from the immigrants themselves to powerful business groups -- at stake.

The pressure behind the immigration debate has been building for decades and has reached a breakthrough point. The spring of 2006 could be remembered as another time of great consequence for the United States, and thus for the world.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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