Immigration debate needs constructive engagement

The debate over immigration policy is inevitably heating up as we prepare for Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. Undoubtedly, an early priority of his presidency will be to increase border security and re-examine President Obama’s immigration enforcement policies.

Unfortunately, because of the over-the-top way in which these matters were discussed during the campaign, including remarks by the president-elect and others, many undocumented people and their children (who might be citizens) live in fear that their families will be torn apart by what lies ahead.

But instead of ratcheting up fear-inducing rhetoric to oppose the pernicious elements of Trump’s pledges (which some pro-immigration advocates are doing in statements that seem more anti-Trump than pro-immigrant), advocates for immigrants, including the Church, should follow a path of constructive engagement. Recognizing that political dynamics are not favorable for comprehensive immigration reform, we should seek to build common ground rooted in first principles, and focus on the need both to keep families together and protect childhood arrivals, who have come to be called the “dreamers.”

First principles

Donald Trump is not wrong that a nation without borders is no longer a nation. Nor is there anything wrong with deporting migrants who represent a threat to the safety and security of the American people. As Pope John XXIII noted in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” the Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their borders for the common good of their citizens, which includes not only their physical safety, but also their economic well-being.

But the right of nations to control their borders is not absolute. Nations also have an obligation to the universal common good, and thus should seek to accommodate migrants to the greatest extent possible, particularly those escaping violence, persecution and extreme poverty.

Similarly, upholding the right of migrants and refugees to come to the United States does not mean that they are without responsibilities to their new nation or residence. Building the common good requires a sense of solidarity among citizens, and when newcomers behave as though they are entitled to the benefits of their new land but do not share in the responsibilities to ensure those blessings continue, it undermines civic friendship.

Lost opportunity

As a reflection of these principles, in 2013 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported a comprehensive reform that 1) created a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, which includes the payment of thousands of dollars in fines and fees;
2) disqualified those with criminal records from citizenship; 3) mandated both English and civics education for prospective citizens; and 4) increased border security by billions of dollars.

This was a good compromise bill that should have been passed. Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered, and now we are faced with an uncertain future regarding how the Trump administration will prioritize the enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws against undocumented people.

Human rights test

Will President-elect Trump leave in place “deferred action” programs for childhood arrivals and their parents and choose to focus instead on those who threaten public safety? Or will the government indiscriminately deport those caught in a new dragnet?

If the latter, then Christians and all those of good will should raise their voice in protest — not by shouting, nor by engaging in sloppy advocacy that sounds like the United States should become a cosmopolitan nation of open borders and global citizens, embracing a relativistic ideal of cultural diversity. These approaches are not helpful or persuasive.

Instead, we should follow the lead of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and view the immigration debate in specifically American terms. The immigration debate is a test of who we are as a nation — a human rights test.

Does America welcome those who share its ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their place of origin? Will America remain a beacon of hope for those who are poor and oppressed, and come out of this controversy stronger? Or will we cynically deport those lured here by a promise of a new life after we have extracted cheap labor from them?

The bottom line is that to protect our immigrant brothers and sisters in these times, we should sound less like open borders absolutists or alarmists, and more like Catholics.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Action Alert

Immigration Sunday: Jan. 8
‘Creating communities of encounter’

Minnesota’s Catholic bishops are again calling for the observance of Immigration Sunday across the state on the Feast of Our Lord’s Epiphany. This annual event provides an opportunity to learn more about the Church’s teaching on immigration and raises awareness about migration issues in Minnesota and beyond.

The theme of this year’s Immigration Sunday — which coincides with the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Migration Week Jan. 8-14 — is “Creating communities of encounter.” It underscores the need to approach immigrants as people to be loved, not problems to be solved.

To support the observance of Immigration Sunday, the Minnesota Catholic Conference has produced resources to use in parishes, schools or homes, including a Liturgy Planning Guide and an Activity and Resource Guide. These materials and more can be found at

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