Thursday, February 07, 2008

Being a Faithful Catholic in America: Part IV - Immigration

[This is part IV of a series I began here. Part II is here Part III is here.]

We have already discussed that the consistent ethic of life, which follows naturally from being a Christian, demands that we always uphold the dignity owed to every person, if we truly wish to grow in holiness. This is because each person is a beloved child of God, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, religion, or legal status. Just as it is wrong to treat people who are black as inferiors, it is also morally unacceptable to treat those from other countries as inferiors or as having fewer rights.

Frequently the issue of immigration is over-simplified. We often hear that “they” come here illegally to steal our jobs and our money; they drain our welfare and taxes, and cause crime rates to increase. Also, whenever we hear talk of immigration we always hear the term “illegal aliens” or simply “illegals.” However, Katerina Ivanovna explains how utterly un-Christian this phrase is:

I can personally attest as to how the debate always boils down to this: illegal immigrants are breaking the law when they enter the country illegally; therefore, they should not be given any type of ‘pardon’ or ‘amnesty’ or special treatment for that matter. It is as if entering the country “illegally” automatically transforms these people into criminals. No distinction is even given to what type of law these individuals are breaking—a civil law. Even so-called “Christians” have no problem saying that “lay and clergy– assert that they have moral license to break the law in order to hide illegal immigrants.” When I run a red light or drive over the speed limit and I am given a ticket, I do not automatically turn into an “illegal” driver or “illegal” citizen. The problem and controversy around the immigration debate has to do exactly with the adjective itself: “illegal” immigrants. In other countries, “undocumented” or “out-of-status” migrants are more proper qualifiers for individuals who are “in transition” within the immigration process.

Sadly, in the debate there is no question as to whether our current immigration laws are fair or whether the treatment of processed “illegal” immigrants is just or not. No question about why “illegal” immigrants do not receive medical treatment while in prison before being deported to their native countries. No question about why “illegal” immigrants die in their prisons before ever reaching their final destination. Hence, we see how the adjective “illegal” applied to the migrant subliminally gives a law primacy over a person within the immigration debate.

As Katerina correctly pointed out, we never hear anyone ask why so many Mexicans (for example) feel the need to risk their lives coming to the US. The majority of them are not in drug or human trafficking. The majority of them are not leaving a pleasant living situation with the intent of draining our economy or getting rich. Rather, their governments are not giving them the opportunity to support themselves or their families. Furthermore, we must realize that a majority of the governments from which the immigrants are coming (with the exception of Cuba) are governments which the US had a large role in putting into place. Also, US companies turn to factories in these countries to get cheap labor, but in doing so they take advantage of the poor and downtrodden, making them work long hours for very low wages, in effect breaking up families.

As we can see, we cannot simply call them illegals and throw them in jail. The majority of these people - and we must always remember that they are people - do not want to leave their home and their family but are forced to leave because of abusive governments, inhumane working conditions, and no living wage. Furthermore, a person cannot be illegal! An action is illegal, like theft or dunk driving, but those actions do not make the person illegal. That person remains a person with God-given dignity. This holds true for people who immigrate to America. They may break civil laws by doing so, but they are not, generally speaking, breaking any moral laws, and they certainly are not "illegal". They are persons created in the image and likeness of God, and they are good.

It is because of the plight of immigrants and their desperate need for Christian love and care that the Church (and Jesus) has always called on the faithful to be the hands and feet of Christ.

Some authoritative examples from the Word of God and from the Teaching of the Church should express the point more clearly than I ever could. Let's begin with the Old Testament:

"When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You will treat the alien who resides with you no differently that the natives among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34)
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Clearly, we can see the command of God to love immigrants even in the early Old Testament, and remember, just as the Hebrews were once aliens in the land of Egypt, so were our ancestors once aliens in America.

As one would expect, Jesus is more decisive on the matter, not only commanding us to love immigrants, but directly associating loving them with loving him:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to see me... Amen I say to you, in so far as you did this for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me." (Matthew 25:35-40)
This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ!

We as Christians, not Americans, are called to welcome those who are strangers in our land. We are called to care for them and to love them as we would love our Lord and Savior. Anything less is a rejection of our call to holiness.

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Centessimus Annus explains:

"The Church's love for the poor, which is essential for her and a part of her constant tradition, impels her to give attention to a world in which poverty is threatening to assume massive proportions in spite of technological and economic progress. In the countries of the West, different forms of poverty are being experienced by groups which live on the margins of society, by the elderly and the sick, by the victims of consumerism and even more immediately by so many refugees and migrants." (emphasis mine)
John Paul II speaks of the Church's love for the poor. (Need we be reminded that "the Church" does not refer to a building or to "those old guys in Rome"?) By virtue of our Baptism we are the Bride of Christ, the Church, and to be part of the Church means to love the poor, the sick, and the immigrants.

Adding to this, Pope John Paul II says in his 1996 Message for World Migration Day:

"Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that "stranger" in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself."
Notice again that our Shepherd, the Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ, associates welcoming and loving the immigrant with being a Christian. Regardless of what any political pundit may say or think and regardless of the stress immigrants may put on our economy, the people of the God have always been taught, first by the Word of God in the Old Testament, then by the Word made Flesh in Jesus Christ, and most recently by our beloved Pope John Paul II, that we must love the immigrants, recognizing their plight and making efforts to comfort them, to welcome them, and to help them meet their needs.


Veronica said...

Well done.
It would do us good to remember this from Matthew 2:13-16 (New International Version)

"When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

When Jesus says, what you do the least of my people, you do unto me. Isn't quite as figurative as we would immediately think. Jesus himself grew up as an immigrant, most likely he was undocumented.

Joseph and Mary had to start their lives over, without family or friends nearby for support.

And finally: God designed the Earth, Man divided it. Why does one man "possess" the land and refuse to welcome others on it?

I especially like the part that mentioned that the US government helped put the other governments in place.

JB said...

Thanks for reading and commenting V!

I pray you are doing well.

Excellent points!
I actually considered talking about the holy family, but I couldn't decide where it belonged. Anyway, here is Pope Benedict XVI on the issue, sounding very similar to you:

In this misfortune experienced by the Family of Nazareth, obliged to take refuge in Egypt, we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially, refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted. We can take a quick look at the difficulties that every migrant family lives through, the hardships and humiliations, the deprivation and fragility of millions and millions of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people. The Family of Nazareth reflects the image of God safeguarded in the heart of every human family, even if disfigured and weakened by emigration.
Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the 93rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Thanks for your perspective on God designing the Earth and man dividing it. It is something we all know, but it is so often we take it for granted and forget it. I think that idea speaks eloquently of the universality of the Church. We are all sons and daughters of God.

Have a blessed Lent!