By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK, STL, Commentary | Published March 31, 2011
The Georgia House of Representatives and Senate have passed separate versions of an immigration bill. These bills, like similar legislation proposed or adopted by other states, aim to curtail “illegal immigration” into the state, in the alleged absence of federal action in this regard. For a variety of reasons, the Catholic Church is not “on board” with this proposed legislation, and the Catholic bishops of Georgia have joined with other groups and individuals in opposing its enactment into law.
Over the past few weeks, the state’s Catholics have had the opportunity to read a statement from their bishops (see The Georgia Bulletin, March 3), supporting comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level and therefore opposing piecemeal legislation at the state level.
Why have our bishops, and Catholic leaders generally, stood up for the rights of unpopular minorities, when they have every political incentive to “go with the flow” and keep silent? Is it primarily because the immigrants in question, being largely Latin American in origin, are Catholics, for whom our bishops and priests have a “soft spot”? No.
While it is true that the “illegal immigrants” in question are known to us in a special way, as we minister to them regularly and know them personally, it is not true that Catholic leaders are engaged in “special pleading.” Even if the majority of people endangered by the current bills were Buddhists or Muslims, it would still be true, as the Georgia bishops noted, that “Sacred Scripture teaches that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, that we are redeemed by Jesus Christ and that we are called to share the burdens of others.” And it would still be true that “Scripture demands special concern for aliens, strangers and others who are vulnerable.” For the People of God, in Old Testament times, could never forget their own experience as “strangers in a strange land” (Egypt), and Moses and his successors made sure that the rights of the “ger” (alien) were enshrined in the Law of Israel, despite the Israelites’ sense of being chosen by God and a people peculiarly his own. They never forgot that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.
In the New Testament, we see the inclusion of aliens, such as a Syro-Phoenician woman, among those healed by Jesus, and, above all, the inclusion of “Greeks” (that is, non-Jews) along with Jews among the new People of God, the Church. “Indeed, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”
The Catholic Church is always mindful that it is “catholic,” that is, “universal.” This means, among other things, that while its members belong to various nations, the Church itself transcends nationality. Historically, the Church has sometimes paid a steep price for not endorsing the claims of a given nation over those of other nations. When Pope Benedict XV issued a plea for an end to the pointless hostilities of the First World War, he was rebuffed not only by non-Catholic powers such as Great Britain and the German Reich, but also by (nominally) Catholic Italy and France, as well as by (actually) Catholic Austria-Hungary. Yet many years later, his example of impartiality and universality so impressed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that he took the name “Benedict XVI” when he was in turn elected pope.
Those who are pushing the states to enact their own legislation on immigration, an area up until now considered to be a federal domain, are doing so out of frustration, to be sure, but also give an impression of narrow nationalism, of a sort that no Catholic can really accept. The scent of disdain, if not of actual hatred, for “foreigners” who seem so alien in appearance, speech and culture, should repel and not attract Catholics. That same disdain was often directed at our ancestors, who did not quite “fit in” here in this largely white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant society.
The energies of those among us who are so exercised by the presence in this country of millions of undocumented workers and their families should be directed towards comprehensive reform, at the federal level, of outdated immigration laws that, for example, restrict the number of visas available for Mexican workers to fewer than 100,000 per year, when we know that we need millions of such workers to “clean our homes and hotels, pick and prepare our food and care for our children and landscaping,” as the bishops have noted. If the problem is first of all with inadequate federal legislation and secondarily with unscrupulous employers and human traffickers who exploit foreign workers, then the solution will not lie in making the lives of these workers and their families more wretched than they already are, but in fixing the federal laws and penalizing their exploiters.
Hence, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland and Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama have called on the members of the Georgia General Assembly, their Catholic constituents and “all people of good will to speak out in support of comprehensive, federal immigration reform legislation consistent with the values of faith and family that we profess.”