On Immigration, Newt is Right

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The 2012 Presidential election is still a long way off and there will be plenty of opportunities for candidates of both parties to explain their positions on a variety of important issues.

Although not every issue is of equal weight or emotional impact, immigration is always guaranteed to inspire headlines, fire-up emotions and, unfortunately, generate more heat than light.

Republican candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich cannon-balled into the immigration pool during a recent debate. Speaking of undocumented immigrants in our nation he said, “If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

His comments predictably created huge waves, at least in political circles, and other candidates hastened to exploit the issue. One Republican candidate accused Newt of supporting – be careful, hold your ears, bad word coming – “amnesty.” Another candidate suggested that Newt’s position was simply creating a “magnet” for even more undocumented immigration. (One could argue that the Statue of Liberty has the same effect.) And other political observers used the issue to question Newt’s conservative credentials.

Mr. Gingrich’s broader position on immigration was seemingly ignored. The fact is that he’s in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and has emphasized the need to secure our national borders. He prefaced his specific comments on families by saying, “If you’re here – if you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period.”

That rather simplistic declaration probably rankled those who prefer a more generous and nuanced approach to the complex question of immigration reform.

But Newt also made a point about immigration that challenges the stance of his Republican allies on other social issues, such as respect for life and promotion of family values. He said, “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century.”

That’s an excellent point for conservative Republicans, pro-lifers and traditional marriage folks to think about. Immigration is, fundamentally, a respect-life issue, and if you’re in favor of promoting the family, you should also favor uniting immigrant families. Makes sense to me!

So, while Newt’s comments on immigration reform have irritated advocates on both sides of the issue, in promoting the protection of families in future immigration legislation, Newt is right, absolutely right. And his position is closely aligned with the consistent stance of the Church on this issue.

In one of his addresses to the Council for Migrants and Travelers, Pope Benedict XVI said, “One must not forget that the family, including the migrant or itinerant family, is the original cell of society and must not be destroyed . . . The separation of members of the family adds particularly to the miseries related to migration.”

The American Bishops have also weighed in on this concern: “The vast majority of immigrants admitted annually to this country enter as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, a trend that coincides with the Church’s teaching supporting family reunification. We bishops commit ourselves and all the members of our church communities to continue the work of advocacy for laws that respect the human rights of immigrants and preserve the unity of the immigrant family.” (Welcoming the Stranger Among Us, p.12, p.4)

And even locally, when in 2008 I joined a number of our pastors in urging a moratorium on immigration raids, one of our primary concerns was that in those large-scale workplace raids, families were at risk of being wrenched apart – spouses separated from one another and parents from children – an intolerable and immoral situation that created anger and fear.

Someday our nation will achieve comprehensive immigration reform. Someday . . . when politicians muster the courage to overcome political ambition and do what is right; when talk show tantrums are replaced by thoughtful and peaceful discourse; when concern for the common good trumps self-interest . . . our nation will achieve immigration reform. Until we do so our nation and state will be divided by debilitating debates over specific issues such as drivers’ licenses for immigrants, tuition rates for college students, and the electronic verification of an employee’s status.

What should comprehensive immigration reform look like? The U.S. Bishops Conference has offered a blueprint: “Comprehensive reform should include a temporary work program with worker protections and a path to permanent residency; family unification policies; a broad and fair legalization program; access to legal protections, including due process and essential public programs; refuge for those fleeing persecution and exploitation; and policies to address the root causes of migration. The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, #83)

Yes, someday our nation will achieve the reform of our immigration laws. Until that longed-for event occurs, however, the debate will go on. I wonder if we can achieve common ground on at least one point however? Can we agree on at least this – that families should not be torn apart by our nation’s immigration policies? To me that’s a minimum standard for human decency and a starting point for a moral policy. On this issue, Newt is right.