As the Obama presidency ends and the Trump presidency begins, few issues stand as more urgent than immigration. The issue is at once huge – involving millions of people around the world – and very small, concerning individual persons, families and communities.
The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) has declared this week “National Migration Week,” in the hopes of shining a light on the issue and offering moral guidance. The word “migration” is understood here broadly to include migrants, immigrants, displaced persons and refugees, the latter of which our own Joe Simmons wrote about recently.
But the most contentious issue in the near future will be immigration. We can expect the USCCB to take a strong stance on behalf of the immigrant during the Trump administration, as reflected by the election of Archbishop Gomez in Los Angeles as vice president of the USCCB. But he is not the only vocal supporter of migrants. Bishop Flores of Brownsville has spoken passionately on the subject, comparing the deportation of immigrants to abortion. There is no question that, for the bishops, immigration is a key “life” issue. The bishops might thus be creating an opportunity to unite U.S. Catholics, so often divided into “pro-life” and “pro-social justice” camps, on one issue.
The theme of this year’s Migration Week is most appropriate: “Creating a Culture of Encounter.” For meaningful reform to come about in the U.S., we will have to reconcile people with vastly different visions of immigration.
The country remains deeply divided on this issue, in part because of tendencies to reject the moral seriousness of the “other side.” Those who emphasize the rule of law and the needs of native citizens, for instance, are often demonized as selfish and heartless, when so often they only want to provide for their loved ones. Those who emphasize the love of neighbor and the right to migrate and work are frequently dismissed as soft-hearted America-haters, when they only want to provide for people in need. The very phrase “immigration reform” has become a weasel word.
Sadly, most major political elites in the U.S. have little to gain from bringing about such dialogue, and much to gain from maintaining the status quo. While the GOP has a “Chamber of Commerce” wing that benefits from low-cost labor, the Democratic party has had to contend with labor unions who fear foreign competition for their jobs. And both parties are able to rally their base by blaming the other party for a failure to act on reform.
“Encounter” will be a crucial task for U.S. politics as we struggle to rebuild confidence in our democratic institutions and in one another. But perhaps the immigration reform is the perfect place to begin to learn it. For real lives are at stake in our immigration debates. Behind the massive problems and structures we associate with the word “immigration” are individuals humans whose lives are precious, with stories, faces and names into which we must be drawn into encounter. If we could learn to put those humans at the center of our debates, then perhaps we could learn to treat one another humanely, as well.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Alex.m.Hayward.