Not for the first time in recent American history, immigration is once again becoming a hot topic in American politics. It’s the issue that never seems to go away for very long – maybe because it touches so closely on who we are as a nation. (We are, after all, as has so often been said, “a nation of immigrants.”) On the other hand, it will be quite something if, on top of finally passing Health Care Reform and (hopefully) Financial Regulation Reform, Congress can seriously address yet another, important issue in this congressional session - in an election year, no less. (Are there any non-election years anymore?) One can always hope, however. Meanwhile, the failure to address the issue seriously at the federal level just seems to invite bad legislation at the state level, like the law just enacted in Arizona.
Immigration is an issue of special salience for the Church. For one thing, so many immigrants are members of the Church. Apart from that, they are often among the more vulnerable members of society and so are entitled to special moral concern on our part. Certainly, there are circumstances when public policy debates involve more than practical prudential judgments and concern matters of fundamental moral principle. Such circumstances arise when public policy either promotes what is always and everywhere intrinsically wrong (e.g., abortion) or attempts to prohibit what is morally obligatory. At the same time, the Gospel gives us no special skills when it comes to forming practical judgments about most public policy. It does not automatically tell us which particular policies will produce a more prosperous economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. As citizens, we all have to make the best judgments we can using our human knowledge informed by our moral sense, always aware that morally sincere people can apply the same sets of principles and come to different conclusions concerning practical political, economic, and social issues.
As an individual citizen, of course, I must personally form my own (hopefully intelligently formed and morally rooted) opinions on public policy issues - immigration reform, among them. As a descendent of immigrants and an heir to their hopes and aspirations, my own personal political judgment is that not only has immigration historically been extremely beneficial for this country – in fact has made it the great nation and dynamic economy that it has been – but that immigration continues to be essential for our nation’s prosperity. I also believe, based both on historical and current experience, that - unlike some European countries, for example - the United States has been and continues to be exceptionally successful in assimilating immigrants. Being an American has always been more about a specifically civic identity than an ethnic one and is ultimately quite compatible with all sorts of ethnic and religious diversity.
The obligations of citizenship challenge us to form judgments about practical issues of public policy that take into account all relevant information and respect the legitimate contribution of those who come to different conclusions. The obligations of discipleship, however, challenge us to recognize that not all options are morally legitimate. Assisting people in need is morally obligatory and remains always an integral component of the mission of the Church.