Immigration and the Bishops

Article excerpt

Frustrated by the national government's failed efforts to reform our immigration laws, many states and municipalities have begun taking matters into their own hands. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 240 immigration-related bills became law in forty-six states in 2007. With no federal solution in sight, we can expect more of the same in 2008.

Oklahoma led the way in 2007 with perhaps the harshest law, HB 1804, which made it a felony for any person knowingly to conceal, harbor, shelter, transport, or move illegal immigrants in the state. Many fear that this measure will receive a broad interpretation, drawing within its web those who minister to the spiritual and basic material needs of others. Indeed, the bill's author has promised another bill next year. If enacted, this further legislation will allow the state to seize the assets of those who knowingly transport, harbor, or conceal undocumented aliens.

In an article in the Daily Oklahoman, I characterized the primary legislative proponent of these laws as an Inspector Javert on a relentless mission to hunt down the Jean Valjeans of Oklahoma. And just as the bishop in Les Miserables offered Christian hospitality to Jean Valjean, so such local immigration laws offer the Church an opportunity to rise above partisan politics in a legally and morally complex situation.

The archbishop of Oklahoma City, Eusebius Beltran, and the bishop of Tulsa, Edward Slattery, have recently made attempts to do exactly that. They had reason to do so: Given the strictness and potentially far-reaching nature of Oklahoma's law, these two bishops found themselves on the frontlines of the Church's response.

In a state where only 7 percent of the population is Catholic, two challenges faced the bishops: to articulate the Church's teaching on the contours of a just immigration policy and to protect the liberty of the Church from state encroachment. This second challenge should not be underestimated. Hispanic Catholics constitute a significant and growing minority of Catholics in Oklahoma, and some of them are in the United States unlawfully. The Church is not the cause of our nation's disordered immigration system, but it must respond to the people it encounters, regardless of immigration status, by promoting the sacramental life among the faithful and by offering charity to all.

HB 1804 has the state poised to punish such works of mercy. According to Bishop Slattery, some fear offering tides to cancer patients because of the law's proscription of transporting illegal immigrants. He notes that state authorities have used their new powers to intercept undocumented persons entering the churches. The law also threatens Catholic unity, with the prospect of some Catholics turning in fellow Catholics who are here unlawfully or who provide spiritual or material assistance to the undocumented.

Faithfully and courageously teaching Catholic social doctrine, each bishop has attempted to put a desperately needed human face on the "illegal alien." Echoing the words of Pius XII, these two pastors remind us that "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil."

Yet the responses of Archbishop Beltran and Bishop Slattery suffer from serious deficiencies. Both bishops view the law as unjust and immoral. But is the law unjust because of its treatment of those here unlawfully? Or unjust because of the harsh ramifications for those who offer humanitarian and spiritual aid? These issues are not dearly demarcated, and both bishops fail to make their case in a clear and coherent fashion that accounts for the nuances in Catholic social teaching. …