The package of immigration measures known as "comprehensive immigration reform" would provide a sweeping legalization for illegal immigrants and increase legal immigration to more than 2 million newcomers a year. But Catholic bishops think it should provide more.
Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made that position clear last month at an immigration conference at Notre Dame.
Appleby said the bishops disapprove of the provision in the Senate bill that would allocate fewer visas for a citizen's extended family. The provision is part of a tradeoff that would provide more visas to persons whose skills are thought to be needed in the U.S. economy.
"Now, the bishops aren't against more employment visas," Appleby said. "But why is it a zero sum game? Why do we have to take from the family system to increase the employment system?"
The bishops want more.
A few numbers may be instructive as to why the tradeoff was considered necessary. They also show how profligate the bishops have become in their insistence that better immigration policy always means more green cards.
In the 1960s, the U.S. admitted an annual average of 322,000 immigrants. In the seventies that number grew to 449,000. In the eighties to 734,000. In the nineties to 901,000. And in the new millennium we have issued about one million green cards every year.
Under the bill passed last year by the Senate, that figure would increase to about two million per year. That's far from a zero-sum game. But it is not enough for the bishops of my church.
The Senate bill would put the U.S. population – which reached 100 million in 1915, 200 million in 1967, and now stands at 317 million – on course for surpass 600 million by the end of this century. That is not enough for the bishops of my church.
One of the principal organizers of the Notre Dame conference was the Rev. Daniel G. Groody, an associate professor of theology and director of Notre Dame's Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture.
In a chapter he wrote for the book A Promised Land, a Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration, Father Groody sacralizes immigrants, likening the transformation they undergo in their journey to the Eucharist.
As one looks more closely at the dynamics of immigration and the structure of the Eucharist, one can observe many connections between the pouring out of Christ's blood for his people and the pouring out of migrants' lives for their families, between Christ's death and resurrection and migrants' own.
Father Groody believes immigration policy must transcend national interests in order to serve the higher good of welcoming the stranger into the national community:
In our globalized world, politics cannot be concerned with the interest of the few or even the interests only of a nation, but must work for the benefit of all, particularly the most vulnerable in a society. The true moral worth of a society, as noted in Catholic social teaching, is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
I agree that American society owes a moral duty to our most vulnerable members. I believe that once we admit new members through our immigration laws, we should acknowledge that their success would be our success, their failure would be our failure, and we should invest in their advancement and especially the advancement of their children.
That is why we can't admit all those who want to come.
But Father Groody's passionate theology of open hearts and open borders, which reflects the position of the bishops, is a formula for overwhelming our capacity.
Yale law professor and immigration scholar Peter Schuck offered this concise explanation in his essay in the 1985 book Clamor at the Gates:
Having ordained an activist welfare state that increasingly defines liberty in terms of positive, government-created legal entitlements to at least a minimum level of individual security and well-being, the nation cannot possibly extend these ever-expanding claims against itself to mankind in general. Instead, it must restrict its primary concerns to those for whom it has undertaken a special political responsibility of protection and nourishment, most particularly those who reside within its territorial jurisdiction. Even this more limited task becomes impossible if masses of destitute people, many ill-equipped to live and work in a postindustrial society, may acquire legally enforceable claims against it merely by reaching its borders.
I think Father Groody and the Catholic bishops should understand that U.S. immigration policy, like the U.S. Constitution, is not a suicide pact. If they believe, as I do, that we have great responsibilities to assist our society's most vulnerable members, they should not insist on policies that would overwhelm our capacity to fulfill those duties. If they persist in that delusion, they should not be surprised that they will continue to lose credibility among those who dissent from their version of Catholic social teaching.
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