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Monday, January 12, 2004

You Were Once Exiles

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

Now, some people would find that kind of Scripture quoting offensive. Indeed, some would simply mutter “and the devil himself uses Scripture for his own devices.” And they would be right. A single verse does not an argument make. However, the debate about immigration is raging, and we have all heard from the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian and independent quarters. It might be worthwhile to find out what the Catholic take is.

The Church has actually said quite a lot about immigration. The issue first came up in Scripture, with the migration of Abraham in the Old Testament and the migration of the Holy Family in the New. In the medieval period, the fourth Lateran Council (1215) began the first modern conversation on the problem: “Since in many places within the same city and diocese there are people of different languages having one faith but various rites and customs, we strictly command that the bishops of these cities and dioceses provide suitable men who will, according to the different rites and languages, celebrate the divine offices for them, administer the sacraments of the Church and instruct them by word and example.” Over the intervening centuries, as the Church has contemplated the movements of peoples, She has had time to reflect on what is just. Though She has written much in the last thirty years on the problem, these two millenia of reflection can be boiled down to essentially six principles:

1) There is a natural human right to migrate in search of a better life.
2) Although the right to migrate is not an absolute right, it can only be restricted for grave reasons related to the common good.
3) Immigration laws should be generous.
4) Immigration laws should not favor the most well off, skilled immigrants, and such people should not emigrate for selfish motives.
5) Immigration laws should favor the unification of families.
6) Immigration workers have a right to be treated equally with other workers.

Clearly, given post-9/11 America, good Catholics can disagree about how these principles might best be implemented. People who prefer stricter immigration controls would undoubtedly emphasize the “grave reasons” (terrorist concerns) of the second point, while those who prefer greater immigration would emphasize the first and third points. But it is in the fourth point that the trouble lies.

America’s immigration policy is weighted to keep “useless eaters” out. We look for the most well off, skilled immigrants; we intentionally siphon the best and brightest out of other countries in order to stay ahead in the world. It reflects our capitalist outlook – when a resource is limited, the price goes up. We limit how many people we allow in, so we demand that those who enter pay a high price in terms of marketable skills and intellect.

In this regard, the flood of illegal immigrants could be viewed is an interesting corrective to an unjust immigration policy. But putting it in these terms is really not very helpful. There is another way to look at it.

Whatever one may say about America’s history as either a Christian or a secular nation, one thing has always been true: America has always been anti-Catholic. The forms of anti-Catholicism in America have been many and various.

The Know-Nothing Party formed in the 1840's as a reaction to the heavy influx of Irish Catholics. When the Pope donated a granite stone in 1853 to be placed in the Washington Monument, a group of masked men, either Freemasons or Know-Nothings, threw it into the Potomac river. The 1915 formation of the Ku Klux Klan was the violent anti-Catholic response to a similar wave of immigration from Catholic Southeastern Europe.

The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment viewed Catholic immigrants as something lower than pond scum. The country violently divided over the possibility of having a Catholic president twice in sixty years, once in 1928 over Al Smith and again in 1960 over John Kennedy. Some of the country’s most prominent figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Mark Twain to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black were virulently anti-Catholic. Today, Protestant anti-Catholicism has been replaced with secular anti-Catholicism. The opponents have changed, the sentiment has not.

Now consider another fact. Like the rest of the developed world, America is not replacing its own population. If it were not for both legal and illegal immigration, we would have a negative population growth. Alan Greenspan described the consequences: “[T]he aging of the population in the United States will have significant effects on our fiscal situation. In particular, it makes our social security and Medicare programs unsustainable in the long run, short of a major increase in immigration rates, a dramatic acceleration in productivity growth well beyond historical experience, a significant increase in the age of eligibility for benefits, or the use of general revenues to fund benefits.”

We are lucky. Europe faces an even worse situation, and her immigrants are primarily Muslim, not Catholic. Fifty percent of Dutch children, for example, will be born to Holland’s Muslim immigrants by 2020.

So what are Catholic Americans supposed to be upset about? America needs immigrants. U.S. immigrants, legal and illegal, are primarily Catholics with a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, a much superior translation of the Mass, and wonderfully rich Catholic devotions. Get an English translation of a Spanish hymnal or discover the origin of posadas and pinatas, for instance. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Sure, these immigrants pose a strong threat to America’s current Protestant-atheistic culture, but that’s a good thing, not a bad one. We get rid of a culture of death and replace it with a culture of life. We may have to add a second language (Spanish) to our skill set, but in return, we get a pension system that is much less likely to go bankrupt and a liturgy which is more accurately translated and richer than the one we have. Finally, we don’t have to face the prospect of living under the Muslim law of sharia within two generations, as the Europeans do.

In short, don’t panic. They’re Hispanic. Thank God.

My commentary on Abraham Lincoln was in error.
Abraham Lincoln on Catholics

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