Mercy and Justice Can Meet at the Border

On August 1st, Denise Mosier, a Benedictine nun out of northern Virginia was killed in a car accident by Carlos A. Martinelly Montano, an illegal immigrant and serial drunk driver. Mosier’s death has highlighted serious tensions between those who demand order at the border, and those insist our Christian duty includes welcoming the stranger. Is it even possible to conceive of an immigration system that is both just and generous?

The day after the accident, fellow Benedictine Sister Glenna Smith pleaded with the public to remember God’s mercy even for the driver. “He’s a child of God and deserves to be treated with dignity,” she said, “I don’t want to make a pro- or anti-immigrant statement but simply a point that he is an individual human person and we will be approaching him with mercy. Denise, of all us, would be the first to offer forgiveness.”

Not everyone would respond with such detached calm. The conservative blogosphere lit up with in anger over Mosier’s death and the lack of tough enforcement that preceeded it. Corey Stewart, chairman of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors, launched a statement saying that President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “have blood on their hands” because their administration had not enforced or implemented policies that would have deported Montano previously. Stewart emphasized that though the Benedictine sisters have a mission of “peace and love,” he is charged with maintaining order and safety.

Meanwhile in Washington, another exhausting round of the public debate about immigration has begun. In the past two weeks, Senator Lindsey Graham has offered to write birthright citizenship out with a Constitutional amendment, the House has appropriated $600 million for border security, and Obama administration memos on how to handle immigration reform absent legislative approval have been leaked. Correspondingly most pundits have launched themselves into a debate about “who benefits” from the fight. Unfortunately their subjects aren’t the immigrants or the American people but Republicans and Democrats.

The Catholic Perspective

But perhaps one of the ways of reconciling the two sides of the debate is that which is reflected in Catholic teaching.

There is no binding doctrinal comittment on immigration issues in Catholic theology. But the Church sees in refugee families a reflection of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, and naturally is solicitous of the needs of immigrants. Reflecting on this image in a 1952 encyclical, Exsul Familia Nazarethena, Pope Pius XII wrote:

In order that this example and these consoling thoughts would not grow dim but rather offer refugees and migrants a comfort in their trials, and foster Christian hope, the Church has to look after them with special care and unremitting aid.

This landmark document constitutes the first modern statement by a pope on immigration, and was released during a period in which many refugees from World War II were still unsettled and communist nations had outlawed all emigration. Pius XII pointedly cited the care the Church had given refugee families that had fled to the Phillipines from communist China. Notably this document establishes that Church custom, since at least the 13th century, was to minister to migrants in their native language.

Pius XII also drew special attention to the example of the United States, “Toward the end of the 19th century… great waves of people left Europe and moved especially from Italy to America. As usual the Catholic Church devoted special effort and care to the spiritual welfare of these emigrants.”

Church prelates have occasionally taken the Church’s stance perhaps too far. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles once speculated that those who wished to refuse entry to the United States would be refused entry to heaven. While speaking on his policy of offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants, he said, “Anything that tears down one group of people or one person, anything that is a negative in our community, disqualifies us from being part of the eternal city.”

But most have acknowledged that nations do have a right to regulate their borders. Former Archbishop of Washington DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has admitted as much: “The Catholic Church acknowledges and supports the right of a sovereign nation to secure its borders, most particularly at a time in which national security is in question.”

Pope John Paul II who publicly talked about a “human right to immigrate,” sometimes spoke of national identity in the same terms used by the most populist restrictionists. The late pope maintained that people had a duty “to defend their own existence and essential identity of their nation from the risks of a destruction generated from outside or of a decomposition from inside.”

The status quo is untenable. The merciful position is not to treat illegal immigration with benign neglect. In this case neglect empowers those employers who would circumvent labor protection and employment laws by exploiting illegal immigrants. That same neglect empowers unscrupulous drug runners and coyotes across the border. It also disempowers those all over the world who would immigrate to America legally. Legal quoatas are unlikely to rise if immigration itself is associated with such disorder.

The orderly and just position is not denying family reunification to keep the numbers more manageable. When Pope Benedict visited the United States in 2008, he cautioned that the separation of families “is truly dangerous for the social, moral and human fabric.” Working male immigrants who live with almost no prospects for marriage or separated from their family are much more likely to fall into alchoholism and crime. And family life is the engine of assimilation over generations. Children of immigrants master the language, adopt the habits, acquire the historical memory and eventually intermarry as they assimilate.

If America can somehow find a way to make its system more orderly and just, mostly by stopping illegal immigration, Americans will be more welcoming of legal immigrants. And the immigrants themselves will find a nation whose laws protect them, rather than threaten them.