Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors

By Heyer, Kristin E. | Theological Studies, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors


Heyer, Kristin E., Theological Studies


RECENT CASUALTIES of unjust immigration policies and practices include a significant increase in border deaths and smuggling networks, prolonged family separation, harmful raids, and the creation of an underclass. (1) By contrast, commitments to welcoming the vulnerable and fostering solidarity ground a Catholic immigration ethic, manifest in pastoral care and social services for immigrant populations and advocacy for humane immigration reform. In the U.S. context, many citizens, Roman Catholics included, remain ambivalent about, if not resistant to, an ethic that urges hospitality and mercy for those who cross or remain within their borders through extralegal avenues. (2)

A variety of factors has contributed to the present situation of an estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, including a significant disparity between labor needs and legal avenues for low wage work, deepening poverty in sending countries, and backlogs in the family reunification categories of an outmoded visa system. Immigration as a problem of social policy involves intersecting legal, political, and economic considerations regarding labor, border security, trade policy, cultural integration, and criminal justice. As presently framed, the immigration quandary pits the interests of different constituencies against one another: native and foreign-born workers, industry and organized labor, cultural conservatives and social justice advocates, even different generations of immigrants. The reality of undocumented immigration remains a complex matter. Legitimate concerns regarding disproportionate burdens on local social services and the need to set workable limits and procedures for border protocol understandably persist. Moreover, attitudes of hostility or hospitality toward undocumented immigrants can be distinguished from reasonable disagreement over a workable policy solution. This article undertakes a theological reflection on obstacles to policy resolution, given the tepid embrace of a Catholic immigration ethic by many in the United States. Without dismissing concerns about the complex relationship between law and morality or the political involvement of churches, fierce resistance to a Catholic ethic of hospitality with the concomitant "casualties" of the prevailing position may suggest Catholic citizens' susceptibility to secular (dis)values.

The etymology of "conscience" (knowing together with) highlights the social dimension of moral knowledge, for "convictions of conscience are shaped, and moral obligations are learned, within the communities that influence us."(3) Adherents' divergent positions on social and political issues within religious communities raise questions not only about the adequacy of ecclesial teaching on evolving moral issues, (4) but also about spheres of influence and discernment. Recent research on Catholic voting patterns suggests that, increasingly, religious affiliation does not significantly influence voting behavior. In the privacy of the voting booth, one's tax bracket, cultural assumptions, or party loyalty may take priority over religious or moral formation on social issues. (5) As Mark O'Keefe has written, "constituted in part by his or her social relationships, the person generally will appropriate uncritically the prevailing values of a culture--even though from an objective standpoint an outsider may see quite readily that the prevailing hierarchy of values is seriously disordered." (6) Hence the cultural forces that perpetuate myths about immigrants and that consistently elevate economic and security concerns above moral ones may wield significant influence. This use of anti-immigrant sentiment as smokescreen to divert attention from needed reforms and the scapegoating of undocumented immigrants for economic and security woes threaten to deafen citizen-disciples to gospel calls for hospitality and justice. Such phenomena elucidate the many "fences," both physical and ideological, that U. …

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Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors
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