Teaching Our Faith — Migrants and public policy

Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, spoke about criminal justice reform at the Catholics @ the Capitol event Feb. 9 in Frankfort, Ky.

Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, spoke about criminal justice reform at the Catholics @ the Capitol event Feb. 9 in Frankfort, Ky.

This series of teaching editorials focuses on the Church’s approach to immigrants and refugees, especially in light of Pope Francis’ invitation to “Share the Journey.”

By Jason Hall

Immigration involves complex legal, diplomatic, military, economic and social questions, while also providing fodder for often simplistic rhetoric that can obscure more than illuminate the problems we face. The Church, being present in every country that people leave as well as every country to which they immigrate, brings to the debate a real pastoral and human perspective, as well as a rich tradition of social thought and teaching. What exactly is the Church’s perspective on immigration as a political and social issue?

First, the Church recognizes a right to migrate. As with most rights, this is not unlimited, but we do have an obligation to respect the rights of people to move out of harm’s way and to pursue better lives for themselves and their children.

Balancing this is the right of each country to regulate its borders. The Catholic Church does not advocate “open borders” without limit. Sovereign nations have the responsibility to protect their citizens from threats, including economic dislocation.

The third principle is that a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. To have a truly just immigration policy, countries should adopt policies that provide the most economic opportunity possible, and crucially, allow families to remain unified or be reunited. Far too often, technicalities of immigration law keep families apart for years at a time.

Underlying these three principles is the fact that people also have the right to not migrate. To be forced from one’s home or to have no meaningful access to the necessities of life or a living wage is also unjust. The U.S. bishops, in solidarity with the Holy Father and bishops around the world, have repeatedly sought to draw attention to the root causes of migration. War and economic instability put people in desperate situations and, as Christians, we must advocate for them.

For years, we have witnessed efforts to improve enforcement. To truly improve the situation, we need to address how the law treats immigrants in various situations, not just increase enforcement. First, we need a humane approach to the 11 million undocumented persons currently in the U.S. To enter the country without authorization is a misdemeanor, a relatively minor crime. And two out of every five undocumented individuals did not even do that! Many entered the country legally and began a life here but, for various reasons, their status expired and was not extended or renewed.

Taking into account these realities, we need a path to legalization that acknowledges wrongs that have been committed but also allows people to get on the right side of the law. If rules have been broken, there should be reasonable penalties. Applicants for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, should demonstrate commitment and ties to their communities, learn English, hold a job and pay taxes. Priority should be given to families and those who have no safe place to go or who have been in the U.S. for a long time. But, if reasonable expectations are met, there must be a way to normalize their status and put them on the road to citizenship.

When it comes to new immigrants who would seek to enter the country in the future, priority should be given to families who are seeking reunification and to new workers who are meeting labor needs in our economy or escaping difficult conditions at home. The need for a new worker program is especially acute, given the dire conditions so many currently face who are seeking work.

In addition to advocating for these reforms at the federal level, the Church also is often in a position of advocating for the immigrant at the state level. Our four Kentucky bishops speaking together through the Catholic Conference of Kentucky recently opposed a bill that would have, among other things, instructed the Kentucky State Police and other law enforcement officers to include enforcement of immigration law in their regular course of activities. This may sound innocuous, but imagine a family where one member recently had a visa renewal application denied or who is caring for an elderly family member who is undocumented. That family will be an easy target for criminal activity, as they will be unable to seek out the police as needed. A victim of domestic violence might feel unable to seek help if she or he is afraid a loved one would likely be deported. This loss of trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve must be avoided.

To learn more about the U.S. Catholic Church’s ongoing immigration advocacy, visit www.justiceforim

Jason D. Hall is the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

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