The Gospel and the thorny issue of immigration


By Michael M. Canaris

Loyola University Chicago

This week, scholars from a variety of disciplines met at the University of Minnesota to mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act on Liberty Island, at a gathering called the Immigrant America Conference. I was delighted to attend since I am currently designing a course on theological responses to refugees, migrants and human trafficking, which I have tentatively titled “Theology at the Borderlands.”

Loyola provides unique opportunities for such an endeavor, as I’ve already held collaborative meetings with the law school, the business school, the Center for the Human Rights of Children, and LUC’s Stritch School of Medicine, the first in the nation to accept undocumented students for medical degrees, all of whom are excited to provide guest speakers for my course.

The conference was largely the brainchild of Professor Erika Lee, the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and an expert on Asian-American immigration. Her work on Angel Island in San Francisco has helped redefine her field. The week drew a fascinating interdisciplinary crowd exploring the intersection of American and global history, sociology, geography, politics, higher education, and of course, religious practice. Themes included migration’s relationship to race relations, advocacy work, Latino-, Asian-, and Arab-American studies, mass incarceration and deportation, health and disease, law enforcement, labor, and digital storytelling. The unifying thread was the contribution the 1965 law, also known as Hart-Celler, made in transforming American life, oftentimes in unforeseen ways.

One area that continues to play a crucial role in contemporary dialogues, both in the academy and in terms of policy, is the sometimes precarious (or specious?) distinction between categories like displaced peoples, economic migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and “illegal” immigrants, all of whom seek humanitarian and humane relief, both from their “sending” countries and the “receiving” ones.

These labels continue to influence who is deemed “worthy” to enter a foreign state, whether in America or elsewhere, and who is refused entry. Well aware of the deplorable history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment camps of Japanese-Americans, I was particularly struck by the repeated references to the less-well-known Haitian “boat-people” of the 1970s and how reaction to them inspired immigration attitudes that remain with us today.

Issues of race, politics of fear, and epidemiology because of HIV attitudes during that period certainly have echoes in today’s world. (Loyola University Medical System’s commitment to expanding access of health services to underserved populations kept coming to my mind during the conference. “Why is health so linked to wealth?,” my colleagues there often ask.)

There were also discussions of how Catholics, whether in terms of influential religious leaders or the National Catholic Welfare Council, were involved in championing social reform and the “family unity” priority that wound its way into aspects of immigration law. Minnesota’s own Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) was a key voice of his time on these matters.

I realize that immigration is a thorny and contentious issue. Polls consistently bear this out, even within Catholic populations. However, I am also convinced that men and women of good will realize the Gospel’s mandate to care for the least among us and continually to convert our own hearts.

In discussing the unaccompanied minors phenomenon (who are over 90 percent non-Mexican, but rather dominated by Hondurans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans fleeing tremendous violence in countries with startlingly high rates of U.S. economic, political, and military involvement in the last 50 years), I will proffer the opinion that if anyone in any political party can unflinchingly look at a 9-year-old in a kennel thousands of miles away from his or her parents primarily as a criminal, or at a woman in hopeful desperation for the child within her womb as smuggling an “anchor baby” across a border while calling themselves pro-life, then they have some serious theological disconnects when it comes to living out Christ’s message.

I do not claim that this description applies to every immigrant — among the many Latino ones, some in fact are “criminals and rapists,” as are some whites, blacks, Asians, Punjabis, Inuits, and any other social group. But if you doubt that there are genuinely tragic things going on, I am most willing to arrange, with a humble and heavy heart, for us to visit some detention centers together. (I can be reached through the Star Herald offices.)

I feel it necessary to make clear that my father, who I love and respect very much, is a retired federal agent, and so these perspectives in no way demean, denigrateor fail to realize the indispensability of law enforcement efforts when carried out with the common good in mind.

Is prudence necessary in rationally discussing national security, potential paths forward, and the relationship between immigrant rights, civil rights, and human rights? Of course. Is God’s choice to reveal Himself to us almost exclusively through migrants in the Scriptures — from Abraham, Moses, and the exiled Israelites to Peter, Paul, and the Holy Family itself — accidental? I remain less convinced.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago.