This essay is part of today’s symposium of lay Catholic opinion on immigration. For other contributions see this one by Christopher Manion, this one by John Zmirak, and this news report from Zenit. For Deal Hudson’s view, see this article in The American Spectator.
A national tragedy is taking place. While we argue about whether people should be here or not, families are being torn apart without any recourse. Children are being separated from their parents and may never see them again.
A new study from the Applied Research Center, entitled “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System,” affirms that there are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care who are prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents. The parents often do not know where their children are or who they are with, and have lost all contact with the child welfare system. Many of the cases documented in the study were related to calls seeking help from police by victims of domestic violence who were themselves placed in detention and deported.
While many children do leave with their parents, increasing numbers are separated for long periods of time. Some are placed with relatives in the United States, but child welfare agencies refuse to place the children with undocumented relatives, sending them instead to foster care with strangers who may be competent and just and may not be so. Even with the best of foster homes, separation from parents harms children psychologically; years of therapy may not overcome the long-term effects.
The number of deportations has increased markedly in recent years, destroying families in the process. Researchers predict that some 15,000 more children may end up in foster care in the next five years. The problem has been made much worse because of the involvement of local law enforcement in immigrant detention in the programs 287g and the so-called “Secure Communities” program in which immigrants are picked up by local police or sheriffs and placed in detention without regard for their families. Officials of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) state that parents get to choose what happens to their children if they are deported, but the research shows that this is not happening.
Adults and/or children who are deported have little or nothing when they return. In some countries houses of hospitality, the majority under Catholic auspices, assist deportees who have only the clothing on their backs for a few days until they can contact their families if they have any, ameliorating a little of the suffering.
Deportation is a Sin
These realities help us to understand why the Second Vatican Council and three papal encyclicals have included deportation among the most serious sins. Dominum et vivificantem, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor all include the following paragraph from Gaudium et Spes:
Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their kind are infamies indeed.
International Trade Agreements Force Migration
When immigration reform is discussed objectors quickly ask, why don’t other countries like Mexico take care of their own people? It is their responsibility, they say, not ours. These discussions usually focus on Mexico. While many argue that racism, xenofobia, and fear of darker skin are not factors in their opposition to immigration, it is noticeable that there are few complaints about the large numbers of fair-skinned Irish undocumented immigrants currently residing in the Northeast of the U.S.
Some who pose this question may be unaware of the effects of international financial policies on the countries from which the migrants come. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have for decades required developing nations to increase exports, thus diverting resources away from small-scale, domestic food production into giant commercial farms, most of which are owned by U.S.-based multinational corporations. “Structural adjustment” rules for loans have required drastic cuts in social services, fees for education, and privatization of public utilities. This has led to corporations even controlling the water supply, bottling the water, and selling it back in plastic bottles to poor people. An example of the encroachment of energy companies on the water of developing nations was the purchase of a major part of the water supply of Argentina by Enron, known for corrupt policies.
Since “free trade agreements” and world financial systems have flung markets wide open, but not borders, people who are desperate sometimes see no option but to migrate without documents if they are unable to obtain one of the few visas available. Employers in countries in need of laborers are glad to receive them.
Not only does the Church affirm the right of peoples to migrate, however, she insists on their first right not to have to migrate. In his Message for the 90th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope John Paul II stated:
The right not to emigrate, is the right to live in peace and dignity in one’s own country. By means of a farsighted local and national administration, more equitable trade and supportive international cooperation, it is possible for every country to guarantee its own population, in addition to freedom of expression and movement, the possibility to satisfy basic needs such as food, health care, work, housing and education; the frustration of these needs forces many into a position where their only option is to emigrate.
Those who worry that a path to legalization will be a magnet for people to leave their homelands do not realize that free trade agreements like NAFTA are the real culprits in forcing immigration.
Dawn McCarty, who has done research among the families left behind in Mexico when men come to the United States to work, wrote in the Houston Catholic Worker (May-June 2008) about the causes of this migration from the perspective of the families affected by it. Her article is entitled “NAFTA Key to Immigration Problems in the United States”:
Although there has been a long history of migration from Mexico to the U.S., the current situation represents a fundamental change in both the pattern and the scale of this movement between the two countries. The causes of the changes in immigration patterns are varied and complicated, but the key factor is the policies associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Nowhere is this clearer than in the rural, agricultural areas of Mexico, where working-age men and, increasingly, single women are scarce, unable now to make the living that their ancestors had made for centuries on land they used to own. Protected by the 1917 Constitution of Mexico, ejido lands belonged to the people in common and could not be sold. Against years of precedent, then-President Salinas managed to change the Mexican Constitution in 1992 so that ejido lands could be made the ‘private’ property of individual members of the collective, who then could sell their plot of land. This privatization of ejido land was a critical component of NAFTA, since these communal lands comprised 29,000 communities and three million producers, encompassing 75% of all agricultural production at the time.
As ejidos were broken up and title given to the individual campesinos, these poorly educated farm laborers tried to make a living on their small plots of land. But now that they owned the land individually, they found that the rules of the game had been changed. The government subsidies that had allowed ejidos to survive were now disallowed by NAFTA. The tariffs that protected them from the much more ‘efficient’ agribusiness of the U.S. were gone. But somehow U.S. agribusiness still got their government subsidies, and that fact, together with the economies of scale available to giant corporations, meant that it was cheaper for a campesino to buy American corn shipped across the border than to grow it himself on his own plot of land. The individual farmer in Mexico, left by himself to the mercies of the “free market,” could not compete with the Colossus of the North. Unable to make a living on the land, the campesinos had to sell their patrimony, and, with no bargaining power, they sold it for a pittance. The predictable result was that much of the land that supported the rural Mexican economy now belongs to the same major corporations and their affiliates that own the land in the U.S. Some of the former campesinos still get to work on the land, but it is no longer their land, and they get paid what the corporations are willing to pay. And the work is sporadic.
Rural agriculture was not the only sector of the Mexican economy hurt by NAFTA, but it was the hardest hit. In the overall industry, as early as 2002, NAFTA had already forced two million farmers off their lands.
Catholic Church Teaching on Immigration
In January 2003, the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter on migration entitled, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” The Bishops stressed that, “when persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.” The Bishops insisted that the “more powerful economic nations…have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” When speaking of immigration reform, the Bishops emphasize the importance of family unity and family reunification through legislation.
Statements from the Vatican and from the Bishops emphasize that foreign workers are persons with human dignity who are not to be considered merchandise, not to be treated just like any other factor of production.
A document from the Pontifical Council for Migrants, Erga Migrantes caritas Christi, provides a profound perspective for Catholics when approaching questions about immigration. It asks us to begin with Christ:
“The love of Christ towards migrants urges us to look afresh at their problems, which are to be met with today all over the world. Nearly all countries are now faced with the eruption of the migration phenomenon in one aspect or another; it affects their social, economic, political and religious life and is becoming more and more a permanent structural phenomenon.”
The document points out that migration as a world-wide phenomenon is an indication of “social, economic, and demographic imbalance” which drives people to emigrate. It speaks of the suffering of migrants, including women and family units: “Often migrants are deprived of their most elementary human rights, including that of forming labor unions, when they do not become outright victims of the sad phenomenon of human trafficking, which no longer spares even children. This is a new chapter in the history of slavery.”
Erga migrantes tells us that “Migration raises a truly ethical question: the search for a new international economic order for a more equitable distribution of the goods of the earth.” The document refers to one of the fundamental teachings of the Church from the earliest times—the universal destination of goods and the importance of the common good.
Migration and the Scriptures
Migration is a theme throughout the Bible.
Abraham, in obedience to God’s call left his home and went to a foreign land, taking with him the divine Promise that he would become the father ‘of a great nation’ (Gn 12:1-2). He did not have legal immigration papers.
The Scriptures teach us how to respond to migrants and foreigners: “Thou shalt not molest a stranger, for you know the hearts of strangers: for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Jesus was born in a manger and fled into Egypt, where he was a foreigner. Born away from home and coming from another land, he came to live among us and spent his public life on the move..
On Judgment Day, the Bible tells us, the Lord will judge us on how we have treated him in the least of the brethren. “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Mt 25:35).
Our challenge is put forth in Erga migrantes: “If, on the one hand, the suffering that goes with migration is neither more nor less than the birth-pangs of a new humanity, on the other the inequalities and disparities behind this suffering reveal the deep wounds that sin causes in the human family. They are thus an urgent appeal for true fraternity.”