March 27, 2014 | By Juliana Kerr

Pragmatic Perspectives from the Church

President Obama and Pope Francis discussed US immigration reform this morning at the Vatican during a nearly hour long conversation that touched on numerous social and economic issues. The Pope is compassionate for the plight of migrants, speaking out and calling attention to those who died crossing the Mediterranean from Africa when he visited the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. In the United States, leaders in the Catholic Church also have been thinking hard and clearly about immigration, as seen at a recent conference at the University of Notre Dame.

Moral arguments have played a vital role for some political leaders who reference their religious values when showing support for reform. But in a world order designed around state sovereignty, citizenry, laws, and country borders, principles such as “welcoming the stranger” are complicated to translate into policy and regulate. The conference on “The Church and Immigration” was held March 2-5, 2014 and convened scholars, pastoral workers, public policy leaders, and advocates to discuss demographic and voter trends, human trafficking, teaching immigration, faith-based activism on the border, DREAMers, and the role of the church in the immigration debate. Speakers at this conference identified priorities for reform that combine the value of human dignity with the reality of policymaking.

According to Kevin Appleby, the director of the office of migration and refugee policy at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church recognizes that political leaders have viewed immigration policies with greater scrutiny since the 9/11 security breach and that it was hard to pass immigration reform during a recession. Nevertheless, reforms should include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, with the conditions such as learning English, paying fines, and getting in the back of the line. He argued that while legalization “promotes family unity and protects the numerous children who are living with mixed status families, registering everyone is also a strong security policy that allows us to know who is actually in our borders.” It will stabilize the labor force and end the hard-to-measure social costs. He would like to see a legal future flow program for low-skilled workers that provides safe passage for the hard-working immigrants so that they are not susceptible to smugglers, traffickers, and death in the desert. And he called for due-process in court and international protection for asylum seekers. 

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, pointed out that the United States has a very generous legal immigration system and a significant refugee resettlement program that is bigger than all other nations in the world combined. But the immigration laws lag behind the conditions on the ground, they are always behind, even as they are being passed. Wars, natural disasters, failed states, developments in technology, and changes in our economy require the nation to be more responsive. “We need reform, but we also need mechanisms to adapt as the conditions change,” he said in his keynote speech.

He was mindful that getting comprehensive immigration reform right is tricky. “There is a misperception that one new overhaul of the system will uphold our history as a nation of immigrants, stop illegal immigration forever, promote economic well-being, and keep families together.” He later added “even the best of laws will have unintended consequences and will be imperfect.” But that doesn’t mean Congress shouldn’t deal with this urgent issue.

He added four new dimensions not currently in the headlines for policymakers to consider when thinking about immigration reform:
  • Take global development seriously. Migration is an act of development and is one of the oldest anti-poverty strategies. While human beings should be able to flourish in their home countries, those seeking to have better lives or simply to survive might migrate. Diasporas send remittances and invest in public works in their home countries, share their experiences and values, and promote development, gender equality, and education. Because of this, migrants should not be thought of as a problem, but rather as a gift. Sending and receiving countries should work together to benefit all stakeholders in the process.
  • Pay sustained attention to the refugee program. The United States should continue to serve as a safe haven and offer protection to those in desperate need. The government can build refugee protection screenings into the visa process and reform inadmissibility bars.
  • Reform border security with integrity. Border control is heavily funded, but success is measured by the number of apprehensions or decrease in the number of illegal crossings which doesn’t recognize the humanity behind the numbers. The government doesn’t return personal belongings at deportation and prolongs exposure in detention centers. In addition, plans to increase funding, staffing, and drone surveillance affects border residents who face government intrusion on their daily lives. The government should decrease the number of deaths, respect the rights of human beings, and be more mindful of border community residents while strengthening our border.
  • Improve the detention system. The immigration court system is underfunded while apprehensions are increasing at record rates. There are about 33,000 beds available per night for nearly 477,000 people detained and some immigrants being held would actually be eligible to stay if they had qualified representation defending them. Seventy percent of those removed don’t ever see the inside of a court system. People are lost in the system, babies are born in restraints, US citizens have been deported, and many die. The government should consider alternatives to costly detention centers and the Church could be helpful with supervision.
Many speakers over the three days referenced U.S. policies that helped create the forces that led to current waves of immigration and urged policymakers to respond fairly to the consequences. Kerwin pointed out that “globalization has a logic without an ethic right now.”

Across the United States, faith leaders of numerous denominations have urged Congress to address immigration reform by speaking publicly and writing op-eds. Advocating for reforms by appealing to moral arguments is a natural path for religious leaders and faith communities. However, when examined closely these arguments are also globally minded and pragmatic perspectives that complement existing economic data and research.
 

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