immigration reformChristians and Catholics, in particular, often have been on the front lines of battles supporting the rights and dignity of immigrants. From the “no Irish allowed” signs so common on the streets of nineteenth century America to opposition to immigrants from Southern Europe, the arrival of newcomers to this nation has occasioned discomfort and, sadly, no small amount of hostility. Catholics have played a crucial role in public debates over the impact of immigration on America, and of immigration policies on human dignity. This is no less true today as our nation deals with large-scale immigration from Mexico and Latin America more generally.

The Catholic Church is, of course, in favor of human dignity. And that has been taken by many to mean that Catholics must be in favor of liberalized immigration policies. It is not unusual for those of us in the pews to be asked to pray for our immigrant communities, that bad laws will stop “separating their families.” Who could disagree? Families should be together, and laws certainly should not keep them apart. Simple, no?

Actually, no, it’s not that simple. The clear implication—confirmed most anytime one presses the priest or deacon—is that current laws are responsible for separating the families of immigrants, especially those who are in the country illegally, and so the laws should be changed to put illegal immigrants on the road to citizenship and help them bring their families to the United States.

To oppose this solution is to risk being labeled a racist who cares nothing for the real human sufferings of immigrant families. And it is no defense to such charges that one is oneself Hispanic. Thus my wife, whose mother was a Mexican national, and several of whose siblings were born in Mexico, is as leery as I am of informing our clerical leaders that there are, in fact, two sides to the immigration debate, and that the side that seeks to base itself on respect for law is not without merit.

But, leaving to one side the issue of whether citizenship should begin with law-breaking, it is worthwhile to ask whether yet another extension of potential, long-term amnesty to illegal immigrants is the kind, Christian policy toward immigrants and toward those they have left behind.

Do our current policies enhance the dignity of immigrants? Certainly not. They trap people who come here to earn a living for their families in a cycle of dependence and fear, in which all too many employers take advantage of them, always able to play the “illegal immigrant” card with those who are not sufficiently compliant. They empower smugglers and the thieves and murderers who too often prey upon people who serve as human cargo. And they provide a safety valve for a Mexican regime that has for a century refused to take seriously the need to fight corruption, to reform a class structure based on political power, and to loosen draconian regulations that make it essentially impossible for people in its lower classes to make a decent living, let alone rise economically and socially.

Will yet another amnesty program change any of this? No. It will simply perpetuate our current system, which favors those who seek cheap, compliant labor, and criminals who supply that labor. Does anyone seriously believe that granting today’s illegal immigrants amnesty will stop more immigrants from seeking work and benefits in the United States? “Amnesty,” however named or packaged, will simply prop up the existing, corrupt system. It also will continue to prop up a corrupt political and criminal class in Mexico. Despite what some Americans seem to believe, corruption is not some intrinsically Hispanic way of life. Many predominantly Hispanic countries have only low levels of corruption, and our own past (and present) includes plenty of instances of pay-offs and improper uses of governmental power. It took us generations to establish a reasonably law-abiding political class, and many of us would argue we are losing significant ground in this fight as we speak.

Moreover, the United States shares much of the blame for the corruption in Mexico, supporting it as we do with our celebrity/recreational drug culture and our thirst for cheap labor. And the corruption lies on this side of the border as well. Human trafficking, especially of young women trapped in lives of prostitution to “service” migrant communities, is a direct result of American policies, and often engaged in with the knowledge, or even cooperation, of American citizens and authorities.

That the problem of illegal immigration is in significant measure Americans’ fault is something to which we need to own up. But the answer is not to dispense with the law, let alone to continue winking at that law’s betrayal. It is, to begin with, to secure our borders. And that involves something neither side of the immigration debate seems willing to do, namely begin enforcing laws, not only against illegal immigration, but against employing illegal immigrants. It is long past time for the government to impose serious penalties making it economically unfeasible for businesses and individuals to continue employing people they know or should know are in the country illegally. There are parts of this country where not hiring illegal immigrants would place a substantial burden on employers as well as workers. But such enforcement must be part of any program to provide visas to people who want to come to the United States to work. As with other visa programs, people seeking to work in the U.S. need to be issued visas only if they have secured employment through agencies—currently without any real market because of illegal immigration—willing and able to place them with suitable employers.

The costs of domestic service, of food service, and of agricultural produce (among other things) will increase under genuine reforms. But human dignity—the Christian duty one hears about in the pews—requires real reform, not just another band-aid covering up a corrupt practice and its many sins against relatively powerless people. The first step must be securing the border. Only then will we be in a position to enact real reforms allowing for legal immigration for those who may find jobs with legitimate employment services and begin a law-abiding process of naturalization for themselves and their families.

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