Illegal immigration is one of those topics that tends to divide the best kinds of Catholics. The public statements of the hierarchy seem to be absolutist in nature and to that extent wholly unreasonable. Likewise, political voices on either side of the debate tend towards an off-putting rhetorical excess. The “left” tends to dismiss the legitimate considerations of the state in securing the border, and to ignore the economic and social costs of the problem. The “right” tends to ignore the human consequences of any proposed solution, while failing to make necessary distinctions between different kinds of illegal immigrants. It seems to me that any reasonable policy solution must consider the following realities:
1. All nations have the right – and the duty – to control their borders.
2. The best interests of its own citizens is any government’s primary concern.
3. Nevertheless, a nation may also have moral obligations to non-citizens both inside and outside its own borders. Those obligations vary according to circumstances.
4. The United States has tacitly encouraged and even rewarded illegal immigration for decades. Millions have come here illegally and made their homes with this understanding. It’s much like the speed limit: in many places governments have a statutory limit on the books, but actually enforce something else as a matter of unwritten policy. The difference is that, in the case of illegal immigration, the violators have actually been rewarded by the government. The reality of this situation sharply mitigates – but does not eliminate – the culpability of illegal immigrants.
5. In justice, then, mass deportation of all illegal immigrants is off the table. Such a solution would be a human catastrophe and a punishment that is disproportionate to the offense.
6. At the same time, rewarding illegal immigrants with citizenship and other benefits is also off the table. Such a solution would breed further contempt for the law, and would be an injustice to those who came about their citizenship honestly.
I believe there is a sensible way to make the best of a bad situation. First, deport illegal immigrants who have shown themselves to be otherwise lawless by their involvement with gangs, drugs, violence, etc. That’s a slam-dunk. Second, allow the rest to apply for a special class of permanent legal residency with the help of a citizen sponsor (e.g., an employer or relative). Permanent legal residency is not citizenship. This particular class would exclude the right to vote, and would also exclude the right to certain non-essential public services (e.g., higher education subsidies). Third, announce that within 180 days our immigration laws will be strictly enforced, and then enforce them. Finally, immigration policy should take into account certain emergencies that may arise, such as the unaccompanied children now flooding into the country. They should be well-treated but with the goal of repatriation or, perhaps, adoption by qualified American families.
One can anticipate the objections from both the right and the left. Many on the right will argue that my suggestion is too soft and continues to reward lawbreakers. My reply is that many of these illegal immigrants were acting on the basis of what they understood to be the unwritten policy of the American government. The United States bears significant responsibility for the lives of those affected by decades of “don’t ask, don’t tell” immigration policy. Many on the left will argue that my suggestion creates “second class citizens” without certain rights. I reply that we already have “second class citizenship” written into the law for various kinds of people who are denied the rights of full citizenship – foreign students, children, convicted felons, etc. Those who enter this country illegally, even if their culpability is mitigated, ought to face a penalty of some kind. Inequality is a fact of life and the law needs to accommodate reality.