Immigration is as ancient as recorded history. It is driven by multiple factors — people move because they are afraid, oppressed, or to escape violence and chaos. Immigration is often accompanied by human tragedy. But not always — people also move because of hopes and dreams. They move to find new opportunities, and they move to contribute to their new country. Having worked with immigrant communities throughout my priesthood, I have seen how deeply patriotic they are when they are welcomed to this country.
Immigration in our time has far exceeded previous experience. The World Health Organization estimates that one billion people are migrating today. We live in a globalized world; in that context, movement is perpetual. Ideas move, products move, money moves. But people do not migrate easily. Obstacles abound.
Part of the reason is that our globalized world is structured and governed by sovereign states. It is a basic function of states to establish secure boundaries, defining the territory where they exercise sovereignty.
Security and sovereignty are part of the reality of immigration, but they are not all of it. Sovereignty has moral content, but it is not an absolute value. The immigration policy of states should combine security with a generous spirit of welcome for those in danger and in need.
That necessary combination of values is seriously lacking in the United States today. Principal responsibility for this moral failure must rest with the federal government, where policy is a product primarily of the president and Congress. But it also must be recognized that, as a society, we are deeply divided over immigration. Our divisions have produced severe human consequences — it is imperative to acknowledge some of them.
First, the most dramatic and dehumanizing consequence is to be found on the border with Mexico. To be sure, the challenge — thousands of adults and children seeking asylum every day — is unprecedented in recent history. But even a challenge of this severity, in a country of our resources and capabilities, cannot justify how these children and families are being treated. The overarching policy of the US government lacks justification. Rather than a humane plan, existing policy in word and deed is more focused on castigating and confining young and old, male and female, in conditions often pervasively unfit for human life and dignity.
Second, rather than focus the efforts of all relevant agencies on the relief of suffering at the border, there are continuing threats made that the government will scour the country to remove people who have settled here and whose children are citizens.
Third, the dysfunction of our policy is acknowledged across the political spectrum of our country. The crisis at the border and the focus on removals leave the broader policy agenda unresolved in the executive and legislative branches of government.
To be sure, there are thousands at the border who require immediate attention. But there are also 11 million unauthorized immigrants in our midst with no policy to stabilize their existence and provide a path to citizenship — a policy objective advocated by the Catholic Church for decades.
Among the 11 million people are 3.6 million people brought to the United States as children, of which only 700,000 have temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is itself under threat. There are also over 400,000 people with Temporary Protected Status who are living in limbo. They have come to the United States for various reasons — for some, their countries have suffered natural disasters and they have no viable option to return home. There are no policies in place to allow TPS holders, the majority of whom have lived in the United State for more than 20 years, to earn lawful residency and move forward in their lives.
The point of identifying these broad categories and consequences of existing policy is to highlight that practical, concrete choices are available to correct a dysfunctional policy. First, we should recognize that economic assistance to El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Mexico could assist people to remain in their home countries. In addition, the historic “guest worker” program, which provides temporary visas for workers, can contribute to the needs of the United States as well. However, our policies on Central America seem exclusively focused on threats, coercion, and punishment. This is surely misguided.
Developing positive solutions does not seem to be the motivating concern of existing policy. Instead, the current emphasis, we are told, is on “deterrence,” a term at home in military policy that is now being advocated to confront people with no power of any kind. The targets in this case are not an armed array of hostile attackers. They are women, children, families.
Fourth, while deterrence can have some role in law enforcement and has been used by other administrations, much depends on the spirit and motivation that animates our broader immigration policy. Current US policy and practices combine to project an attitude of animus toward immigrants. Most evident is the language used at times to describe people on our borders; it is often degrading and demoralizing.
Beyond language, there are the policies to reduce the number of refugees the United States will welcome. The numbers have been reduced substantially, and threats exist to reduce them to zero. The federal government recently announced it will expedite removals of undocumented immigrants without judicial appeal or oversight and move to provide for unlimited detention of families seeking asylum. The tenor, tone, and result of these policies communicate a distinct message: We have no room in our hearts and no space in our country for people facing life-and-death situations. This hostile spirit toward immigrants extends to proposals to expel some of those receiving crucial medical care. A similar spirit of lack of compassion and generosity is manifested in new proposals to focus immigration increasingly on merit-based applicants, leaving the poor excluded.
Our present moment requires civility and charity among the citizens of our society and toward those hoping to become citizens. As a country it is a good time to remember the biblical axiom: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley is archbishop of Boston.