Challenges in the face of Obama’s executive action on immigration

Recently, I have been fielding a lot of questions about President Barack Obama’s executive action that “defers action” for, potentially, millions of undocumented persons living in the United States. Many illegal immigrants may have, if they qualify, at least a temporary reprieve from deportation.

Most people with whom I spoke, and who were initially opposed to the president’s action, supported it when they heard what it did and did not do. As Catholics, we support keeping families together.

The confusion surrounding the executive action is emblematic of an immigration debate that has been distorted both by the impassioned dislike of President Obama and a media culture that, unfortunately, turns most political debates into either/or policy choices.

Avoiding that trap requires more from us as Catholics, including: 1) reading broadly; 2) listening faithfully; and 3) seeking to “encounter” with people affected by our choices, all of whom are made in the image and likeness of God.

1. Information goes a long way

Commentary on and reaction to the president’s action has generated more heat than light, and has fit into the false parameters of the public immigration debate: Either open our borders to all comers and grant “amnesty,” or deport all those who are here.
The president’s order is not “amnesty” in the popular sense of the term, which would mean forgiving undocumented persons, requiring no penalty of any kind, and providing them with lawful immigration status.

The president’s action instead expands the government’s existing “deferred action” programs for undocumented persons who came to the United States as children.  Similarly, the administration is declining, temporarily, to deport people who are parents of U.S. citizens and who have been in the country since before 2010. This latter provision seeks to keep families together, especially when many have been here for decades building a life together after being lured by American businesses.

The order does not grant immigrants any particular legal status, or put them on the path to citizenship, which only Congress can do. There is also a large application fee for those who wish to avoid deportation, which underscores the reality that any opportunity to stay in the United States will ultimately cost immigrants thousands of dollars in penalties and fees, which hardly constitutes “amnesty.”

These basic facts tend to alleviate the concerns that many have about immigration reform generally, or the president’s actions specifically. Yet, you won’t often hear them on talk radio or cable news outlets.

2. Consider the voice of the Church

Church leaders at every level have been speaking about creating more just immigration policies for decades. More recently, Pope Francis has made the plight of migrants a theme of his pontificate. Closer to home, the U.S. bishops have argued ceaselessly for a “family-based” immigration policy, the very rationale used by the Obama administration for its executive actions.

Following the president’s announcement, the U.S. bishops repeated their call for the president and Congress to work together to create permanent solutions to fix the nation’s broken immigration system. Yet, they applauded the administration’s effort to keep families united and deemed it a necessary humanitarian step.

Following the action, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia noted that Catholics are rightly disappointed with many of the president’s policies which, in his words, have been “harmful not just for people of religious faith, but for the nation at large.” Still, in this instance the president did the right thing, in Archbishop Chaput’s view, and there is hope that the president’s actions will stimulate congressional leadership in establishing a more lasting solution.

3. Listen to the people affected by public policy decisions

An important theme of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry exhorts us not to let ourselves be caught up in abstractions, but to see the human face of Christ in all persons.

Minnesota Catholic Conference hosted an immigration seminar in 2013, and one of the speakers was a Catholic man named Jacobo, who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 22 years. Jacobo is a taxpayer, homeowner, and father to five children, all U.S. citizens. He came to the U.S. as an asylum seeker during the Guatemalan civil war. When the peace agreement was signed, he was asked to return to Guatemala. He decided to petition the U.S. courts for residency, but after years in court he was eventually turned down. By that time, he was married and he and his wife were expecting their second child, so he made the most difficult decisions of his life: to stay in the U.S. without legal documentation.

A few months ago, Jacobo was detained by the government and, in November, days before the administration’s announcement, was about to board a plane to Guatemala. After reviewing the new deferred action criteria, his lawyer thought he is likely to qualify. So, he is now back with his family, waiting to file for a deferred action temporary stay as soon as possible.

Jacobo’s story illustrates that, while political contours of the debate are important, we need to also see with the eyes of Jesus the dignity of the families and individuals affected by our political choices.

Consider asking yourself: “As a faithful Catholic, at what cost do I support splitting Jacobo’s family and young families like his?” Giving a face to our public policy choices can help us encounter difficult policy discussions in new ways.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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