The American Catholic bishops are taking a serious interest in immigration reform legislation being worked on in Congress. Although many of the bishops have spoken on this important issue, it seems that Cardinal Dolan of New York and Archbishop Gomez of Los Angels are two of the key point men, so to speak. Recently Archbishop Gomez dedicated an entire newspaper column to this question.
From all that I know Archbishop Gomez is a very good man, and he deserves the respect due to a good man and to his office. And he certainly has a right to express his thinking, as well as an obligation to give pastoral guidance to the Catholics in his charge. Nevertheless, I think there are some problems with his presentation of the immigration question in his column, and I would like to point them out. Here I will mention two.
First, I think he is excessively moralistic about a question that is largely a matter of prudence and therefore one on which honorable people can disagree. The archbishop defends a fairly lenient posture towards immigrants who have entered the country unlawfully. He thinks new legislation should be passed that gives them legal status in the United States, and does not think it is proper to resort to deportation. These are defensible views that are held by many American and many Catholics.
He also seems to suggest, however, that it would be wrong, unjust, a moral failing to take the other side on this question and defend a more rigorous policy. He says that how we approach immigration reform is a “challenge to our conscience” and a “measure of our humanity.” That is true, as it is true of every important public policy question. On the other hand, a reasonable and upright person could conscientiously think that ongoing uncontrolled unlawful immigration will result from a failure to enforce the current laws, and that this would be harmful to the country. Such a view might be mistaken, and anybody who thinks so has every right to say so. But it is hard to see how it can be written off as unconscionable or inhumane.
Similarly, Archbishop Gomez speaks of immigration reform as a “question of human rights and human dignity,” the “civil rights test of our generation.” As every informed American knows, to raise the issue of civil rights, and thus to invoke a comparison with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, is to cast a public question as a naked contest between justice and injustice, right and wrong, humanity and bigotry. But surely this comparison is strained, if not outright improper. Prior to the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, many African Americans were kept by law in a condition of subordination and humiliation for no other reason than their race. This is just not the case in the matter of illegal immigration. The question before us now involves people who entered the nation unlawfully, and who therefore by their own conduct made themselves subject to legal actions like deportation.
Archbishop Gomez in fact admits this. He candidly says that it is “not good” when people enter or remain in the country without proper authorization and that such people “should be held accountable”–but “how”? But to frame the issue this way–as a question of what kind and degree of accountability is demanded by the common good for a given unlawful act–is really to move it into the realm of prudential judgments about which earnest people could differ.
Second, Archbishop Gomez invokes the memory of Cesar Chavez in relation to immigration reform. As the archbishop observes, Chavez was a great civil rights leader and a serious Catholic. He omits to note, however, that at various times in his career Chavez was critical of immigration, and of illegal immigration, because he saw it as worsening the bargaining position of the workers he represented. I don’t bring this up as a kind of debating point to score against Archbishop Gomez. There is a serious point. The argument about immigration reform is often framed as one pitting compassion against unreasonable rigor, with compassion arguing for amnesty and admitting generous levels of new immigrants. But there is also a compassionate case to be made on the other side. High levels of immigration, particularly of less skilled workers, will drive down the wages of, and worsen the competitive situation of, similar workers who already reside in the country. Chavez understood that, but it is a point that is often overlooked in the present debate.