Flawed law unintentionally shows urgent need for immigration reform

by Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
May 5, 2010

Over the past week various people from around the archdiocese have asked for help in reflecting on Arizona's new immigration law. As readers will know, I've used this space many times in the past to urge sensible, national immigration reform. Citizens of this country have a right to their safety and the solvency of their public institutions. But we undermine those very goals if we ignore the basic human rights of immigrant workers and their families.

In the case of Arizona state law, Catholics should listen first to the leaders of the Arizona Catholic community, for obvious reasons. They know the situation there best. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson and Bishop James Wall of Gallup, N.M. (whose diocese includes portions of Arizona) are all excellent pastors. Their leadership in the coming weeks and months should set the tone for our own response.

Having said that, it's worth making a few simple observations:

First, illegal immigration is wrong and dangerous for everyone involved. There's nothing "good" about people risking their lives for the mere purpose of entering the United States. There's nothing "good" about our nation not knowing who crosses our borders and why they're here, especially in an age of terrorism, drugs and organized violent crime. There's nothing "good" about people living in the shadows; or families being separated; or decent people being deported and having to start their lives all over again, sometimes in a country that they no longer -- or never did -- know.

Second, the new Arizona law, despite its flaws, does unintentionally accomplish one good thing. Thanks to Arizona, the urgency of immigration reform and the human issues that underlie it -- deported breadwinners; divided families; the anxiety of children who grew up here but do not have citizenship -- once again have moved to the front burner of our national discussions. Our current immigration system is now obviously broken. Congress needs to act.

Third, no credible immigration reform will occur if the effort becomes an exercise in partisan maneuvering. Both of our major political parties got our country into our current immigration mess. Both parties bear responsibility for fixing it. Neither will solve it alone. Unfortunately, the recent national health-care debate compromised public confidence in some of our key federal lawmakers. Having pushed through a deeply flawed national health-care bill in the face of serious concerns and widespread public displeasure, Congress now faces an equally hard task with an equally volatile issue. This will require a transparency, patience, spirit of compromise and bipartisanship rarely seen in Washington in the best of seasons, and too often completely missing in the recent health-care debate.

To put it another way: If the immigration debate divides along the lines of party advantage and slogans, or becomes entangled with very different and unnecessary issues like same-sex relationships -- then real people will suffer. And nothing enduring will result.

Finally, we need to remember that America is a nation built by immigrants. For nearly all of us, our ancestors were immigrants; and immigrants -- including today's Latino immigrants -- are a blessing for American society in every sector: our economy; our culture; and our religious and moral life. The American Catholic community has a long history of welcoming immigrants and helping them integrate into, and enrich, our nation's life. Here in Colorado, the Church will continue that work with all of her energy.