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Immigration Legislation and Moral Witness

Immigration "reform" legislation pending before Congress has generated concern not only among immigration lawyers and policy makers, but in the Church, as the this article in the New York Times indicates.

Leaving aside the merits of the legislation for the moment, the Church's critical position has generated the usual resentment at a religious institution daring to stick its nose into a policy contoversy, and surprise at this particular religious institution's audacity at claiming a moral high ground given the abuse scandals. The notion that the Church would also urge resistance against an unjust law apparently also strikes some as frighteningly novel.

I won't get into the fundamental question of the Church's right, indeed obligation to bear moral witness, because there is a threshold question of whether the proposed legislation actually creates a new problem for the Church in its ministry to illegals by imposing a clearer or stronger legal obligation to report them to the authorities. Some believe the Cardinals are getting excited about nothing, because the changes are not all that drastic. See this discussion in the National Review online.

My Villanova colleague Beth Lyon, an expert immigration lawyer and scholar, does not buy that argument. She writes:

If [the legislation] passes, it is certainlyarguable that this provision would change the Churchs obligations. The [National Review piece] correctly noted that the level of change would depend on how assistance to reside inor remain in is interpreted. Three organizations that are working closely on this (American Immigration Lawyers Association, National Council of La Raza, and National Immigration Law Project) are taking the position that humanitarian assistance in the interior could be penalized by these changes contained in H.R. 4437. It is my understanding from AILA that the Senate version will not contain the expanded criminal grounds. Overall, my sense is that this is a red herring and will be dropped, the real issues being amnesty and how much it will cost industry (in the form of worker protections) to legally access guestworkers.

Unfortunately, the Church and others are forced to expend resources to get the red herring dropped, and I think they are right to do so.The Church's alarm also seems founded in light of current legal developments in Europe. The European Union issued a directive in 2002 ordering member states to adopt legislation sanctioning any person [this includes non-profit organizations] who intentionally assists [a foreign national] to enter, or transit across..[or] to reside [in] the territory of a Member State [illegally]. The directive notes that Any Member State may decide not to impose sanctionsfor cases where the aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance to the person concerned. A few governments have created domestic legislation implementing the directive, some with harsher standards than others. The Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe, with which the International Catholic Migration Commission cooperates, reported that we are extremely worried that in recent decisions of the EU on facilitating illegal entry and residence exemptions for humanitarian organisationsremain optional.

I come away from this with the conclusion that the bishops and Cardinals are not making a mountain out of a molehill. They are taking a position on something significant. So here are the real questions: First, does their opposition to these provisions express Catholic social teaching faithfully? Second, is it appropriate in a liberal democracy for the Church to oppose and even urge resistance to such a policy?

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Both of Mark's questions are good ones, but the second one strikes me as "easier." In my view, it is certainly appropriate -- in a liberal democracy, or any place else -- for the Church to oppose proposed policies and even, in some cases, to call Christians to resist unjust laws. As for the first . . . on the one hand, I doubt Catholic Social Teaching requires faithful Catholics to oppose reasonable regulations of immigration (notwithstanding the fact that, as a wealthy nation, we have obligations to the poor who are trying to come here and to the poor nations from which they are trying to come). On the other, it is hard to square the Gospel's call with a legal demand that the Church not minister to the hungry and homeless, simply because they entered unlawfully.

I agree that the issue of criminalizing humanitarian aid to immigrants, even if it does not make it into the final version of the legislation, is a matter worthy the public attention of the Church.I assume the right of the Church to oppose such policies, and as such it seems that the Church might also be right to advocate a particular approach to immigration reform.