Q&A: Immigration Reform from a Catholic Perspective

April 29, 2013 by

Professor and author Kristin Heyer recently spoke to House and Senate staff on how Catholic social teaching informs the current debate about immigration reform during a briefing sponsored by several Catholic organizations, including CRS. Heyer holds the Bernard J. Hanley Chair in Religious Studies at Santa Clara University in California. Her research focuses on the ethics of immigration, Catholic political engagement, and moral agency.

Kristin Heyer

Kristin Heyer

Heyer, author of “Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration,” recently spoke with CRS about how Catholic Social Teaching informs the debate about immigration reform:

How does Catholic social teaching inform the current debate on immigration?

We are finally hearing some attention to human dignity and human rights—which are central to Catholic social thought–rather than economic and security concerns alone. I was pleased to hear some of that surface in the press conference [introducing the Senate immigration bill] in terms of providing a path to citizenship and recognizing that having an underclass or a “two-tiered society” not only harms individuals, but threatens our entire common good. So even if they are not using language of Catholic social thought, some reform arguments resonate with this tradition, which views immigration in quite different terms than those governing the debate over the last decade, often marked by exploitation of fear and exploitation of the vulnerability of migrants.

How do we navigate the tensions that sometimes exist between human rights and the rule of law?

The UN Declaration of Human Rights insists human rights should be protected by the rule of law. The democratic process doesn’t always guarantee laws are just. But the more significant problem, it seems to me, is that our focus on “law and order” rhetoric lets us scapegoat immigrants as “lawbreakers” who threaten security and fail our litmus test of national identity, while our outdated policies and enforcement practices diminish the rule of law itself. Lack of transparency and accountability in some of our border security practices and lack of due process afforded detained immigrants threaten the rule of law. Certainly international standards of human rights and Catholic thought on human rights are more robust than the protections in the US constitution. And yet, I think significant human rights violations at our southern border because of fortification that has funneled migrants through the most dangerous terrains, in our detention facilities, and in our fields and workplaces threaten the rule of law so central to this nation.

Speaking of the border, can you talk about the Kino Border Initiative and what it entails?

The Kino Border Initiative is a bi-national partnership between the California and Mexican Provinces of the Jesuits in the twin cities of Ambos Nogales (southern Arizona and Northern Mexico).  KBI also works with the bordering dioceses (Hermosillo and Tucson), the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, and Jesuit Refugee Services/USA. It’s been around for about four years now and it takes a three-pronged approach to addressing the most pressing needs at the border. One is direct outreach for recently deported migrants. They have an Aid Center for Deported Migrants, where people who have been recently deported can get clothing and personal care items, referrals to Mexican services, two meals a day for about a week and access to basic first-aid assistance. They have a shelter for deported women and children who are particularly vulnerable, Casa Nazaret. Often women are repatriated at different points of entry than their spouses, and others travel alone. These unaccompanied women are particularly vulnerable to predators after deportation, as they make their way alone in an unknown city. The KBI also supports research and advocacy regarding border issues as a second dimension of its work. They host students and visiting scholars, and recently put out an important report “Documented Failures,” about what they’ve learned from their interviews with deported migrants regarding abuses by the Border Patrol, the Mexican police, and crime syndicates, along with policy recommendations. Then the final element is pastoral education and outreach. One of the things that the founders discovered in the needs assessment phase was that the closer they got to the border, the more difficult it was to talk about some of these volatile issues, especially because many parish and other border communities serve undocumented members and Border Patrol alike. Many of these communities have been bi-national for generations, and are now militarized and divided. So a lot of their outreach work involves helping people learn and talk about these very difficult issues and find some common ground and shared solutions.

How does the tone framing the immigration debate misinform us about the realities facing immigrants?

The dominant tone framing the debate perceives immigrants as posing economic threats, security threats, and cultural threats, or threats to our shared national identity.  This manifests in what I was saying before about “law and order rhetoric,” or scapegoating immigrants for the economic downturn, or the anti-immigrant sentiment that we have seen spike in recent years. We continue to hear dehumanizing rhetoric across our airwaves. The nation saw a 40 percent hike in anti-Latino hate crimes (2003-2007), and last year they jumped in California by 50 percent.  But I think another one of the problems is rhetoric that understands migration as a clear and simple choice to break the law. I think that’s probably the most misinformed and misleading approach, to reduce discussions to “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” Once you’re actually in a conversation with vulnerable migrants, you understand the picture is far more complicated.  As a deportee at Casa Nazaret in Nogales told me last week, “Back home I either feed my family or send my kids to school.” Others may be the sole breadwinner whose family depends on the money they send back, or increasingly we receive people fleeing from violence. So to say these migrants “choose” to leave their families and take the risks of assault, detention or death along the journey, or “choose” to work without documents, feeds misconceptions and ignores wider realities compelling irregular migration.  I think the complexity of many migrants’ lives—marked by desperate need but also incredible resilience and empowering perseverance, not to mention rich contributions to their new communities—flies in the face of arguments that insist “people simply choose to break the law.”

What does immigration reform need to consider in order to be enduring?

Excellent question: this is very important to identify and to address, yet the question has been absent from the political conversation even amid this promising start toward reform. A clear look at how our free trade policies have contributed to unauthorized flows of farmers from México and Central America, for instance, who are unable to compete with subsidies from US agribusiness, reminds us that we the taxpayers contribute to some “push factors.” So in terms of immigration reform, we do need to reconsider a path to citizenship, visa allotments and due process. Yet we will not secure a lasting solution if we don’t also take a look at our complicity in abetting the root causes of immigration. Certainly root causes are complex, and sending nations have responsibilities to bear.  But as long as we have unequal interdependence in terms of trade, for instance, I don’t think fortification of the border is going to produce a lasting solution. Again, from what I’ve learned first-hand, people are understandably desperate to be with their families, and people are desperate to make a living wage. Not to address root causes remains short-sighted. That’s what the Catholic tradition means by protecting the right “not to have to migrate” along with the rights of those who are compelled to do so.


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