By: Bishop Gerald Kicanas
Emotions flare up at the mention of immigration. People
feel strongly about the issue on all sides. People express their opinion on Web
sites, in blogs, at rallies and in phone calls to their legislators. Like other
bishops, I have received many e-mails, calls and letters mostly voicing anger
about my involvement with the issue. Certainly, attitudes toward immigration
guide the decision of some voters, especially in my state of Arizona.
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
As people of faith it is critical that we understand the
complexities of immigration. As people
of faith it is critical that we have opportunities to discuss the issue so that
we can better understand the Church’s concern and involvement in this issue. As people of
faith we need to share our attitudes and feelings and—as hard as it is
sometimes—we need to listen.
Why, then, is the Church involved in the immigration
issue? There are 3 broad, or overarching, reasons. In this Update, we’ll explore 1) how Scripture and Catholic teaching see
and understand immigration; 2) immigration’s impact on the life of the Church:
our parish life, our programs, our growth and diversity; and 3) the moral
issues that the Church is called to address in the broader society.
Let’s start with a discussion of Sacred Scripture.
1. Immigrants in the Bible
In the Old Testament we hear
Yahweh’s preoccupation with the “anawim, the little ones, the widow and
orphans, the stranger” (see Exodus 22:22). In Isaiah 43 we hear that we ought
not harm or hurt the alien, for “you yourselves were aliens in the Land of Egypt” (an echo from Deuteronomy
10:19). The Israelites are exhorted not
to wrong any widow or orphan or stranger. The Israelites must remember that
they were enslaved in Egypt,
so they need to be sensitive to the basic needs of others and not to dismiss or
exclude or ignore them.
In Leviticus 19:33-34 the Israelites are reminded by
Moses, describing the community they should become, that they are to treat the
stranger with respect and not molest him: “Count them as one of your own
countrymen and love him as yourself.”
In Leviticus, too, we hear about the Jubilee Year. That is
a year in which God’s people are to share their goods in God’s name. After all,
God alone is the God of all things. This text is filled with reference to
“distributive justice”: We are not to hoard all for ourselves, but rather to
share resources with those with great need.
In the New Testament, the experience of the migrant and
the refugee is played out in the life of Christ, our Savior. As we all know, he
was born in modest circumstances in a stable, since there was “no room in the
inn” (see Lk 2:7) In his adult life, Christ was himself an itinerant preacher,
who, as Christ says in Matthew, had no home.
Jesus and his Holy Family were also refugees, as they fled
to escape the wrath of Herod as mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. They left their
home out of fear for their lives, especially for the life of their son.
The Holy Family experienced being
strangers in a strange land. They felt the fear, the anxiety of being
displaced. They were turned away and shunned. If they were on earth today, they
would qualify, under international law, as a refugee family.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one whom
we would least expect to respond to the man beaten and robbed. The priest
looked away, the Levite looked away, but the Samaritan saw the desperation of
the man and chose to take care of him even at his own expense.
Jesus reminded his disciples in Mt 25 that at the Last
Judgment we will be judged not by what we own or what we have read but by what
we have done. He told us that when we feed or clothe or visit the littlest and
weakest among us, we do it to him.
Catholics, then, are called to welcome the stranger,
because in the face of the stranger or the migrant we see the face of Christ.
2. The life of the ChurchThe teaching of the Old and New
Testaments has been expanded upon by popes and bishops over the centuries
through Catholic social teaching. The heart of the Church’s teaching is
grounded in the dignity and sanctity of the human person from conception to
natural death. Each person is entitled to live in conditions that enhance, not diminish, the dignity of human life.
In 2003 the bishops of the United
States and Mexico issued a groundbreaking
document, Strangers No Longer: Together
on the Journey of Hope (see C0906). In that document they outline the
social justice principles from our Catholic tradition pertinent to immigration.
In brief, they make five main points. First, they say,
“People have a right to find economic opportunities in their homeland.” Second,
“Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.”
Third, “Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.” Fourth,
“Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.” And finally, “The
human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.”
Papal teaching, too, has been consistent in upholding the
right of people living in abject situations to migrate in order to care for
themselves and their family.
Likewise, the Church has consistently taught that we must
be committed to the exile, the alien and the migrant. Each year the Holy Father
puts out a statement articulating this commitment and the underlying teaching
on the dignity of all human life. In last year’s statement he defended the
“right to emigrate” as a fundamental right to leave one’s country and enter
another country to look for better conditions of life (“Message for 97th World Day for Migrants and Refugees, 2011”). That
implies responsibilities among immigrants and the host countries.
“States have the right to regulate migration flows and to
defend their own frontiers always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity
of each and every person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into
the host country, respecting its laws and its national identity,” he said.
3. Our Moral Stance
Immigration is a human issue and immigration laws impact
human beings and their welfare. It is thus important to understand the full
reality of immigration and our immigration system.
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As bishop of the Diocese of Tucson, I see
immigration—particularly irregular immigration—as a daily concern. The Tucson area has seen the most migratory activity over the
past 20 years, as other parts of the border have been shut off by the U.S.
Let me share a few statistics with you. Since 2000 the U.S. has spent
$117 billion on immigration enforcement, while the number of undocumented
immigrants has increased by nearly 4 million persons. Why do they come
illegally or overstay their visas? Because there are only 5,000 permanent visas
in the immigration system for them to come legally. We say at the same time
Help Wanted (the 5,000) and Keep Out (everybody else)!
The reality along the border presents many concerns. With
increased border enforcement, criminal elements have become more and more
involved in assisting migrants to enter this country illegally. This has led to
mistreatment, even in some instances sexual exploitation and violence against
Every day drugs and weapons pass along our southern
border. This must be stopped. The power of drug cartels must be broken. Drug
peddlers have even stooped to forcing children who cross the border to go to
school in the United States
to become “mules” carrying drugs into our country.
In 2010 alone 252 illegal border crossers were found dead
in the Tucson area along our Arizona border. From 1998 to 2011 over 5,000
persons died in the American desert, including women and children. How tragic a
situation this is for people seeking a better life! How tragic a situation for
their families who suffer the grief of a loved one’s death in the desert!
many of those who try to migrate, especially those from the south of Mexico and from Central and Latin
America, are living in desperate situations. They lack adequate
resources to live a decent way of life. They are pushed north because of their
condition and they are pulled north by the availability of jobs and
opportunities that don’t exist in their own country.
There are no easy answers to the challenges of
immigration. A first step each of us needs to make is to become knowledgeable
and aware of the complexity of the immigration question. Each dimension—human,
political, social, economic and moral—needs to be ad-dressed if we are to
4. Morality and Policy
Catholic bishops continue to advocate with the president and Congress to pass
comprehensive immigration policy change to fix a system described as broken by
former President George W. Bush and many others.
do the U.S.
bishops prescribe? We prescribe a comprehensive immigration policy, one that
would help end illegal entry and help to focus energy on securing the border
from criminal elements.
immigration is not good for anyone. It is not good for the migrants risking
their own lives crossing the borders. It is not good for a country not to know
who is crossing its border.
bishops—teachers, leaders and servants of all Catholics—want to replace
illegality with legality: legal avenues for entry and legal status for the
undocumented, provided they meet certain criteria.
are the elements of comprehensive immigration reform?
A comprehensive immigration policy change would include a worker program
allowing people to enter the country legally to do work needed here.
would include worker rights so that people entering the country would be paid
equal wages and have the protections that would prevent them from becoming
U.S. workers would have the first shot at jobs,
but migrants would have a chance if a U.S. worker is not found.
would this type of program do? It would ensure that migrants have a safe and
legal pathway to work in the United
States, protecting them from exploitation by
smugglers or unscrupulous employers and from death in the desert.
Comprehensive immigration policy change would include a pathway to citizenship
for the 12 million people who are in the country illegally. This does not mean
amnesty, like the amnesty that took place in 1986 under President Ronald
comprehensive policy change that would include an earned pathway would make
demands of those seeking legalization.
undocumented immigrants would need to pay reasonable fines, learn English and
accept a provisional legal status as they go to the back of the line behind
those who have applied legally to enter the country.
bishops, as well as others, believe that these requirements would ensure that
migrants here illegally would pay their debt to society and earn their way to
citizenship. It would permit the United States to continue to
benefit from their hard work and would keep immigrant families together.
cannot allow people to remain in the shadows, people who are contributing to
our community and want nothing else but to be good and respectful members of
the shadows, they are being taken advantage of and exploited. In the shadows it
is difficult for them to report crimes and injustices they are experiencing. In
the shadows they live in fear of having some of their family deported.
comprehensive immigration policy would support family unification. The Church
is always concerned with the integrity of the family: We need to find ways to
keep migrant families intact.
A Question of Faith
is a complex and controversial issue. But we cannot, as a nation, continue to
kick this issue down the road. A federal solution is needed, and needed now.
must continue to educate the American public and our Catholic people about the
need for a comprehensive and humane solution to this problem. As a moral
matter, we cannot continue to exploit and dehumanize these brothers and
sisters, who simply want to survive.
a nation, we cannot continue to accept their toil and taxes without offering
them the protection of our laws. Our Catholic faith demands it.
A Personal Encounter
Let me share some stories about the migrant
that may help us move beyond attitudes expressed in the public debate that
sometimes paint the migrant as less than human or as intending harm.
Not long after I arrived in Tucson
early in 2002, I was invited to go to Altar, in the Mexican state of Sonora.
It’s just about a two-hour drive from Tucson.
We brag about our weather in Arizona, but let
me tell you, in the summer, the Sonoran
The vast dimensions of this desert, while starkly
beautiful, have become a dying ground for migrants who must walk through it to
enter our country.
Up until about 20 years ago, Altar was a sleepy farm town with a
population of a couple of thousand. But, for the last two decades, Altar has
been transformed, has been taken over, by one industry.
The industry of Altar is storage,
trans-portation and exploitation. Altar is the staging area, the gathering
point, for people on the move. Migrants. Storing them. Transporting them. Exploiting
It was in Altar that for the first time I met
I met the migrant in the town’s plaza. That’s where dozens
of crowded buses drop migrants off each day. The plaza is fringed by booths at
which they can purchase backpacks, gallon plastic jugs of water, images of Our
Lady of Guadalupe, black clothing, even snakebite kits.
I met the migrant in one of the casas de huespedes (“guest houses”)
where they stay for days awaiting their call from their “coyote,” their guide,
to board a truck or van for the ride to the border. The casas are essentially warehouses. The migrants are crowded into one
room, and they lie on triple-decked bunk beds made out of rough lumber. Their
anxious eyes glimmer in the near darkness.
Many of those I met were teenage boys and young adult men, most from the southern Mexican
state of Chiapas or from Central America. They
appeared timid and frightened, but they
were determined. They want a better life for themselves, for their families. Like
any of us they love their families and want what is best for them.
Some of those I met have made several attempts
to enter the United States.
When I asked them why they keep trying, they would say, “We have no other
choice. We cannot make it in our own country. It is so difficult.”
Those who have tried the crossing and who have had to turn back or who were caught and deported tell of
terrifying moments passing
through the desert at night worrying about bandits who prey on migrants and
about snakes or insects that could harm them. They spoke of the heat they had
to endure and their swollen, bleeding feet. I asked, “Why do you keep trying?”
They answered, “We have to try to improve our lives.”
I met the migrant as I stood just outside
Altar, by the dirt road along which the crowded minivans pass, taking them to
the small village
of Sasabe, within walking
distance of the border. One van stopped. I heard a voice ask if I might give them a
blessing. As I looked into the van I saw
men and women with fear in their eyes asking for divine protection and help. I
I met the migrant in a Tucson hospital. He was a teenager (15) from Chiapas. He spoke only
his native language, which is neither English nor Spanish. He had climbed
aboard a freight train, going north in hopes of finding a job to help his mom
and seven siblings. He was in the hospital, I learned, because when he jumped
from the moving train he fell beneath it and his legs were severed. His dreams
were dashed. He would return home, now dependent on the family he wanted to help.
The Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas
heads the Diocese of Tucson,
Arizona. He also serves as the
chairman of the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Services.
NEXT: The Abundance of God and Our Christian Response (by Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I.)