Uniting mercy, justice in immigration reform debate

Minnesota Catholic Conference staff often receives emails of “concern” regarding policy issues for which MCC is advocating on behalf of the Minnesota bishops. Most recently, these e-mails have centered on the bishops’ support of federal immigration reform legislation.

What is at the heart of the latest wave of emails concerning the Church’s position on immigration reform? It was a question I recently posed to someone, who responded: “While we’re talking a lot about justice, I think we’re forgetting that this is also a question of mercy.”

He brings up a good point, one that is borne out by the messages that we receive. Many people on both sides of the immigration debate invoke “justice,” “fairness” and the “rule of law” as reasons for and against the federal reforms being proposed. Yet, how often do you hear the issue being discussed in terms of re-establishing the unity between justice and mercy? How often are we challenging our suppositions of what is authentic, rightly ordered justice and mercy?

Complementary parts

In political discussions, we tend to position the virtues of justice and mercy as distinct opposites. Yet, the greatest Christian moralists, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, remind us that all authentic virtue is rooted in the supreme virtue of love.

And, if all virtue springs forth from the same place, they cannot be in opposition to one another, but must be complementary parts of a unified whole. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution,” but he also said that “justice without mercy is cruelty.”

In a 2008 lecture, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, Italy, explained this dynamic as “a symbiotic relationship in which the dignity of the person is nevertheless its crucial compass, delegated to confer upon justice its own true dynamism, its true value.” He thinks that, because of this, it impels justice toward much more profound goals which, being fulfilled through mercy, bring “humanity’s journey to correspond ever more closely to the image of God impressed upon the human face.”

Two common claims

Cardinal Bagnasco knows well that this unity — between law and love, justice and mercy — is not easy to achieve. Our default ideas for how to go about it are often a cacophony of partisan sound bites, without much thought as to what is required of us and others to truly achieve a virtuous society.

There are two “sound bites” concerning the Church’s support for federal immigration reform that most often appear in my inbox. Both tend to stress the importance of “the ordering of the state” without acknowledging what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in “Deus Caritas Est” (no. 28) deems necessary as well, that is “guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern.”

The first claim is, essentially, that “What you’re talking about is amnesty, and undocumented immigrants should pay.” The other is “We should secure the border before we do anything else.”

The U.S. bishops have long supported an earned legalization for those in this country in an unauthorized status and who have built up equities and are otherwise admissible. Although the legislation is far from perfect, the Senate immigration reform bill (S. 477) has a rigorous road map to citizenship, containing numerous steps, penalties, and fees — including going through a series of paying fines and application fees, passing background checks, paying any assessed back taxes, and providing proof of employment.

Further, the Senate immigration reform bill makes even more investments in border security, including raising the number of Border Patrol agents, and building an additional 350 miles of fencing (to bring the total miles of fencing to 700).

This adds to the already unprecedented amount of resources allocated to the southern border in recent years, which doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. In fact, border apprehensions (what the Department of Homeland Security uses as a proxy for the number of immigrants attempting to enter the United States without status) are currently at historic lows.

Road map to citizenship

Increased enforcement measures along the border, and including penalties and fines for undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship, acknowledge the importance of the rule of law and the right of nations to secure their borders.

We should also acknowledge that people move, and they do it for often grave and desperate reasons: to put food on the table, to earn a living wage and to send their kids to decent schools. Providing a road map to citizenship that is attainable for the millions of immigrants without legal status, many who came here to give their family a better future, is one example of how we can establish a necessary unity between justice and mercy.

House Speaker John Boehner has already said that border enforcement legislation will be considered first by the House. It is imperative for Cath­olics to talk to our Minnesota representatives and emphasize the importance of passing legislation that pro­vides a road map to citizenship, too. Justice truly hangs in the balance.

To contact your representative, visit the MCC Catholic Advocacy Network “Action Center” on mncc.org.

Zittlow is communications director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

At a glance

Although not perfect, the overall Senate immigration bill is an improvement of the status quo and includes:

• Record-breaking build up at the border.

• An achievable path to citizenship.

• Unprecedented family reunification.

• The most generous DREAM Act yet.

• Help to promote economic growth.

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