Thursday, May 11, 2006


Illegal Immigration: Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Mahony

As I was browsing the online document library over at EWTN looking for transcripts of John Paul II's Theology of the Body audiences, I happened to stumble across the late pope's Annual Message for Migration Day 1996 given on July 25, 1995. Since the topic of illegal immigration has been a hot topic as of late, I was more than just a little curious as to what the late pontiff had to say on the subject. I also wanted to know how it compared to what some individual bishops, such as Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Cardinal Mahony had to say in his 2006 Ash Wednesday Mass homily about it vis-a-vis a recent bill HR 4437 passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his Ash Wednesday homily, the Cardinal made the accusation that the bill would make it a felony to offer humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants. In a subsequent Spanish language interview, His Eminence went on to say: "I would say to all priests, deacons, and members of the Church that we are not going to observe this law." And in an open letter to President Bush, he said: "It is staggering for the federal government to stifle our spiritual and pastoral outreach to the poor, and to impose penalties for doing what our faith demands of us."

Besides the fact that the Cardinal's accusations have no basis in fact, when the language of the bill is read in context, it refutes his claim. The Cardinal, in his official capacity, is clearly taking one side over the other in an issue that a Catholic can take either side. This paints the false impression (albeit unwittingly) that there is only one legitimate Catholic position that can be taken.

Pope John Paul II, by contrast, understands the problem of illegal immigration as complex and delicate. And as such, the debate should not be framed in the rather simplistic terms it is presently framed in by both sides. He begins his message thus: "The phenomenon of migration with its complex problems challenges the international community and individual States today more than ever."

This is, of course, correct and the reasons why this is so are manifold.

And: "Thus migration loses that dimension of economic, social and cultural development which it had in the past. In fact, there is less and less talk of the situation of 'emigrants' in their countries of origin, and more and more of 'immigrants', with respect to the problems they create in the countries where they settle. Migration is assuming the features of a social emergency, above all because of the increase in illegal migrants which, despite the current restrictions, it seems impossible to halt."

I think it is worth noting that the Holy Father does not include illegal migration at this juncture as having the a "dimension of economic, social and cultural development". In the United States, the economic development enjoyed in its history has been in very large part to the fact that it has provided a haven for immigrants to stake out a livelihood for themselves by placing their labor and talent at the service of the common good in a manner unmatched in history. But I think in fairness, we would have to admit that some of those immigrants entered this country by illegal means. Along these lines, John Paul II points out: "Illegal immigration has always existed: it has frequently been tolerated because it promotes a reserve of personnel to draw on as legal migrants gradually move up the social ladder and find stable employment." As to the reasons why illegal immigration has been tolerated and to what extent it contributes to the employment pool and to an economy overall is indeed debatable.

But it does seem to reflect the common claim made here in this country that immigration laws are not enforced due to the cheap labor illegal immigrants provide and thus making them vulnerable to exploitation. It also seems that it is for this reason, the pope states: "Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants. (n.2)"

With the way things are now in the U.S. we have unscrupulous employers being able to avail themselves of illegal cheap labor without any fear of accountablity due to lack of enforcement of laws already on the books while being able to use the illegal status of these workers as leverage against them if they protest any abuses.

Another such activity commonly practiced is human smuggling. Those who engage in this activity (nicknamed "Coyotes") and gang activity who are the target of the HR 4437, not those simply providing humanitarian assistance, as Cardinal Mahony so brazenly asserted, according to Rep. Peter King (R-NY) one of the bill's sponsors.

The next sentence in the pope's message is an important one: "The most appropriate choice, which will yield consistent and long-lasting results is that of international cooperation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment."

Any "international cooperation" surely must include the willingness to hold the countries of origin accountable for the contribution the injustice and corruption of their governments make to this problem. For instance, in the case of Mexico, it is clear that that rampant cronyism and corruption in its government and much of the general culture is what holds many of the Mexican populace in absolute squalor. This desperate situation drives many of them to go to the lengths of risking their own lives to come into the U.S. illegally for even the faintest hope of securing a decent livelihood for themselves and their families.

Furthermore, the Mexican government act as enablers by providing printed instructions along with maps on how to evade the Border Patrol.

Unfortunately, the American government has been derelict in its duties in not pressuring the Mexican government to clean up their act.

Equally disconcerting is the silence of the U.S. bishops on this aspect of the issue. This is an area where they, in collaboration with the Mexican bishops, could do agreat deal of good. With the moral authority of their offices and appeals to the principle of subsididarity, they can put enormous pressure on the Mexican government to reform their society in such a way that provides greater opportunites to those in the lower social class (in Mexico, you are, for the most part either filthy rich or dirt poor) to stake out a livelihood while making a meaningful contribution to the economy. But it seems that both the American and Mexican bishops rather ride the "blame America first" bandwagon placing the blame almost entirely with the United States.

There is absolutely no good reason why Mexico cannot make it possible to create conditions more conducive to greater economic opportunities for underclass given the fact that it is a country rich in natural resources, namely oil.

In stark contrast to Cardinal Mahony's call for civil disobedience viz. HR 4437, the Holy Father calls for mutual trust and cooperation between civil authorities and social and charitable institiutions: "Social and charitable institutions can make contact with the authorities in order to seek appropriate, lawful solutions to various cases. (n.3)"

One of the ways this can be helped along is for Church and civil authorities to seek to better understand each other's aims and concerns. As Cardinal Mahony's attack on HR 4437 clearly illustrates, such misunderstandings are rampant. To make matters worse, Cardinal Mahony never contacted any of the sponsors of HR 4437 to ensure that his understanding of what the bill said was correct. According to HR 4437 co-sponsor Peter King, not one bishop, priest, or Church official contacted him inquiring about the bill's content. This is inexcusable in my view.

In difficult situations like that created by illegal immigration, the temptation to place inordinate blame on the illegal aliens themselves is great. The Pope warns against this danger: " It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations.(n.4)" Despite the widely publicized claims of of so-called pro immigration groups, there is absolutely no evidence that opponents of illegal immigration are motivated by racism or xonephobia. The accusations along these lines leveled at groups like the Minutemen border watchers are not only without merit, but are downright slanderous. The motivation here on the part of groups like the Minutement is nothing more than a legitimate concern for our own security and the integrity of our laws and sovereignty.

However, sometimes the arguments put forth regarding the economic impact of illegal immigration by both sides are less than sound. For instance, the claims that the contributions made to the U.S. economy by illegal immigrants is such that the economy couldn't function without them or at least would be seriously impeded has no merit whatsoever. The percentage across the board in the service industries that normally employ illegal immigrants is so miniscule (less than 10%) that the economy would hardly suffer any significant setback if they all went back home right now. But this knife cuts both ways. It also confutes the claim that these people are taking jobs away from American workers and are driving down wages in these industries. While it may have this result in very isolated cases and could be the result on a larger scale if illegal immigration were to continue and expand unabated, the present percentages of the workforce comprising of illegal immigrants is hardly enough to support the claim that this is what is happening now.

There are more than enough solid arguments to buttress the position that illegal immigration is a serious problem that needs to be recitfied. Among them is the fact that it is the illegal immigrants themselves who are among the hardest hit by this problem. Influxes of illegal immigrants due to pourous borders and lack of enforcement of our immigration laws only invite other dangers such as drug trafficking and gang activity, of which the same illegal immigrants are made pawns of . And in a post 9/11 world {1} the realization that pourous borders, particularly our southern borders{2}, makes us even more vulnerable to terrorist attack has been brought home with greater clarity.

One difficult local situation that is not caused by illegal immigration, but is surely exacerbated by it is the strain it puts on our already fiscally burdensome social welfare, public education, and health care systems that are in desperate need of reform. This makes illegal immigrants vulnerable to being explioted by politicians who stake their political careers on keeping these counterproductive violations of the principle of subsidiarity not only in place, but keeping them growing.

But all of this does not in anyway totally mitigate the resposnibility the illegal immigrants themselves bear in all this. While it is understandable that they would go to the lengths they do to illegally enter this country given their desperate situation, it is in no way justifiable. They are not relieved of their responsibility to respect our laws and our national sovereignty. They also make it harder for those who, while in the same predicament, choose to go about emigrating in a manner congruent with our laws. Illegal immigration serves to unfairly stigmatize these people and all who share the same ethnic origin. It seems clear to me that all pastors of souls have a duty to impress these facts upon the consciences of those illegal immigrants that seek their assistance. To say that this is not happening would be to only state the obvious.

Many have proposed the idea of some sort of guest worker program as part of a solution to this problem. While I do not oppose this idea in principle, I think some of the arguments put forth in support of it are both false and insulting to people's intelligence. The worst one is one often repeated by President Bush and others and uncritcally accepted by many (including myself at one time) that it is needed to fill jobs Americans won't do. In other words, Americans, due to their affluence, won't do the more arduous jobs. If this is the case, then why is there no demand for illegal immigrant labor in the coal mines? None of the jobs that are often filled by illegal immigrants are nowhere near as dirty, physically demanding, or dangerous as working in a coal mine.

The most plausable justification in my view for a guest worker program would be to fill jobs over and above the present rather low unemployment rates. It seems to me that a strong argument can be made justifying the need for it under these conditions.

The last statement from the pope's letter I would like comment on is this one: "I urge the particular Churches to encourage reflection, to issue directives and to provide information to help pastoral and social workers to act with discernment in so delicate and complex a matter.(n.5)" Boy, do our bishops need to hear this! What they have done falls far short of this ideal. In addition to what I have already pointed out above about the need for greater mutual understanding on this issue, I think bishops, especially those shepharding dioceses in border regions, along with Mexican bishops, should spend more time down on the border. They should visit with and enter into dialogue with those on both sides. And a key part of any pastoral exhortation should be to firmly and clearly practice paternal correction on those Catholics who seek to deliberately misrepresent the aims of those on either side of this debate.

In His social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II said that the preferential option for the poor is not exlusive or discriminatory toward other groups. Hence, the care and concern for the lot of those poor souls who enter into country illegally cannot exclude the concerns of all involved in this problem.


{1} This papal message was issued in 1995, some six years prior to 9/11, had it been issued post 9/11 it would have surely addressed the security concerns surrounding the problem of illegal immigration.

{2} While the northern border with Canada presents sigificant problems, the similarities in appearence of those of Middle Eastern descent (from whom the greatest terrorist threat exists. This is a fact of life and not at all an indictment on all those of Middle Eastern ethnicity.) with those of Hispanic ethnicity, the ability of them to blend in with each other poses a unique problem on our southern borders that does not exist on our northern border.


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