What Now?

What Now? June 23, 2018

President Trump has ordered reversal of the policy that resulted in the separation of children from their parents at the Southern border. The task remains of getting all of the children reunited with their mothers and fathers, but the temptation now will be to put this unpleasantness behind us. That is a temptation we should avoid.

From the civic standpoint, it is clear that the U.S. is going to have to get to work on developing immigration legislation that serves the needs of American businesses and citizens, but, at the same time, doesn’t render us an international pariah. This is going to be the task of Congress. Even though Congress is loath to engage with an issue so politically charged, it would be the height of irresponsibility to simply leave things as they are.

Catholic social teaching does provide guidance, and it has been the fervent wish of Christian Democracy that Catholics participating in civic life, either as politicians or citizens, take the Church’s magisterial social doctrine as their guide. This turns out to be a singularly unpopular idea in some circles, both on the “left” and the “right,” but it must be urged on us nonetheless, because it is only with magisterial authority that we are guaranteed guidance from the Holy Spirit, even if certain magisterial statements cannot be said to be infallible, or even if certain of those statements will be better understood at some point in the future. In any event, it is reckless for Catholics to suggest that Catholic social teaching can be ignored, or that there is no such teaching. The popes have told us of the authority this teaching carries, and of the fact of its existence.

The first thing to recognize regarding immigration is this:

Immigration can be a resource for development rather than an obstacle to it. In the modern world, where there are still grave inequalities between rich countries and poor countries, and where advances in communications quickly reduce distances, the immigration of people looking for a better life is on the increase. These people come from less privileged areas of the earth and their arrival in developed countries is often perceived as a threat to the high levels of well-being achieved thanks to decades of economic growth. In most cases, however, immigrants fill a labour need which would otherwise remain unfilled in sectors and territories where the local workforce is insufficient or unwilling to engage in the work in question.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC), §297) [1]

The notion that immigration represents a threat to the American standard of living in some absolute sense is misguided. Indeed, immigrants can be a benefit where there is an insufficient number of Americans willing to do the same necessary work. This is particularly the case in agriculture. Last year, Fortune reported that a shortage of migrant workers was “resulting in lost crops in California,” and that farmers were reporting that they were “having trouble hiring enough people to work during harvest season, causing some crops to rot before they” could be picked. [2] This situation “triggered losses of more than $13 million in two California counties alone, according to NBC News.” “The ongoing battle about U.S. immigration policies” was blamed for the shortage. Clearly, this sort of thing is an undesirable outcome, and it must be kept in mind as the nation develops a sensible immigration policy.

Now it must be acknowledged that at least part of the reason for this phenomenon is that the pay is too low or the working conditions are substandard, or both. Undocumented workers are particularly subject to exploitation in this manner, since they avoid accessing legal remedies for fear of deportation. Thus,

Institutions in host countries must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to exploit foreign labourers, denying them the same rights enjoyed by nationals, rights that are to be guaranteed to all without discrimination. Regulating immigration according to criteria of equity and balance is one of the indispensable conditions for ensuring that immigrants are integrated into society with the guarantees required by recognition of their human dignity. Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life. In this context, the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted. At the same time, conditions that foster increased work opportunities in people’s place of origin are to be promoted as much as possible. (CSDC, §298)

The fact that we have foreign workers in our country subject to exploitation because of low wages, unsafe working conditions, and lack of access to legal remedies such as workers’ compensation, should tell us that we are doing something wrong. To say that some foreign workers are subject to these conditions because they are in the country illegally is inadequate. The requirement that we not have exploited labor in our country is an absolute, regarding which we should not invoke loopholes.

The answer is not to ignore the problem, but to regulate “immigration according to criteria of equity and balance….” Critical to this end is permitting a sufficient number of foreign workers into the country that there is no incentive to hire undocumented workers by anyone other than unscrupulous employers. This might be accomplished by strengthening the cooperation between employers and the government, so that the bureaucracy associated with obtaining the necessary foreign employees is minimized and that pertinent legislation is free of arbitrary limits. Indeed, it might be worthwhile to allow businesses to set up hiring stations along the border, with temporary visas issued on the spot. As for those unscrupulous employers, current legislation should be reviewed to ensure that penalties are sufficient to deter the practice of hiring people who are not legally in the country.

Unification of families should be the primary consideration. We recently flunked the test on that issue. Every immigrant, temporary or otherwise, should be permitted to bring his spouse, his children, and his parents. People working in the United States should not be required to mail their paychecks to another country.

A situation where immigrants have to live in the shadows is inadequate. In particular, it presents a law enforcement problem, since people fearing deportation are reluctant to help the police in reporting crime. Simplifying the system in the way described can create a situation where the immigrants who are here are here legally, and need not keep their presence secret.

Of course, there are already a large number of people here who are not in the United States legally. As we simplify and unclog the system, these should be given an opportunity to step forward and have their situation regularized. It is understandable that some would object that this would reward the breaking of federal law. But federal law hasn’t properly dealt with the situation. It is impractical to think that we can have mass deportations, or that we should stuff our prisons with all of those people.

This post hasn’t dealt with the DACA issue or those seeking asylum in the United States. Those are articles in themselves. But the situation of people entering the United States for work can be handled much better than the way we do it now. Whatever we decide, we cannot lose sight of the fact that every immigrant, legal or otherwise, is a human being of infinite worth.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Ancalagon

    How do I as an American benefit from mass migration of third world workers?

    Well, they are willing to work for less pay than I am, and this allows employers to provide services and products at a lower cost to me, the consumer. Consequently this boosts a GDP based largely on consumption.

    So those big Macs and that landscaping cost less than they would if American wage and living standards prevailed.

    It also allows me to pay more to live in a diverse and enriching apartment complex, a higher price for a smaller apartment that is definitely worth it because of the interesting and non English speaking neighbors, a solid foundation for strong community.

    This is all a good thing, guys. Right, guys?