Americans are of two minds about the undocumented immigrants who are in the country—now estimated to number about 12 million people. On the one hand, many Americans recognize that the national economy depends on these people’s labor—particularly in agriculture, construction, and the hospitality industry. No wonder many business groups oppose any legislation that would penalize employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
On the other hand, many Americans are angry about the fact that millions of immigrants reside in this country illegally. All over the country, anti-immigrant groups are urging state legislatures to pass laws that will make it so difficult for undocumented immigrants to live and work in their communities that they will “self-deport”. Awhile back, one Oklahoma legislator even suggested that legislation should be passed that would deny birth certificates to children born in this country to undocumented immigrants—even though such children are American citizens by constitutional right.
As Catholics, what should our position be on this divisive issue? After all, many of these undocumented immigrants are our co-religionists, and we worship together with them in our cathedrals and parish churches.
Catholics should think about undocumented immigrants from the perspective of our Catholic faith. Pope John Paul II made this quite clear in Laborem Exercens. “Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives . . . in order to seek better conditions of life in another country,” John Paul wrote. And in Ecclesia in America, John Paul recognized the rights of migrants and their families to human dignity “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
The American Catholic Bishops have spoken on this matter as well. In Strangers No Longer, the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) acknowledged the right of sovereign nations to control their borders, but it “rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth.” In addition, the USCCB said that “[m]ore powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.”
As Catholics, we might also view this issue from a historical perspective. In a way, the debate about the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States is similar to a debate that took place in 16th century Spain about the proper treatment of Native Americans by Spanish conquistadores.
As historian Lewis Hanke laid out in his marvelous book Aristotle and the Indians, debate about the proper treatment of American Indians began soon after the New World was discovered and had become so intense by the middle of the sixteenth century that King Charles V—Holy Roman Emperor and the strongest ruler in Christendom—ordered all New World conquests to be suspended until a special counsel of theologians and jurists should decide upon a just policy for the treatment of the Natives in the Americas.
Two scholars debated this issue at a gathering of Spanish scholars in Valladolid in 1550. On the one side was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that the nature of Native Americans was brutish and rude, making the Indians fit only to be slaves of the Spanish. Moreover, Sepúlveda argued, the Spanish had the right to make cruel war on these people wherever they might be found. Taking a contrary view was an elderly Dominican friar by the name of Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had lived in the Americas nearly half a century and who argued that the essential natures of the Indians was in no way inferior to that of the Spanish.
As Hanke pointed out, Sepúlveda drew his negative opinions about the Native American character without ever having visited the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, he ignored information then available in contemporary Spain about the achievements of Native American culture.
In this sense, Sepúlveda is like some of today’s anti-immigration activists, who insist that undocumented immigrants are criminals by their very presence in the United States, that they are excessively disposed to crime, and that they pose an unacceptable burden on public services for which they pay nothing in taxes. In fact, scholars have shown that undocumented immigrants commit far fewer crimes per capita than native born Americans and that they pay more in taxes than they receive in public services.
Las Casas argued that “all the peoples of the world are men”—that is, human beings—and that American Indians should be treated humanely and that their dignity should be respected.
Looking back from the perspective of the 21st century, we know that neither Sepúlveda nor Las Casas totally won the debate at Valladolid. The Spanish conquest of the Americas went forward with great cruelty and bloodshed interspersed with acts of kindness and humanity. Still, as Professor Hanke reminds us in his book, “Today it is becoming increasingly recognized that no other nation made so continuous or so passionate an attempt to discover what was the just treatment for the native peoples under its jurisdiction than Spaniards . . .”
Surely, Las Casas was right when he argued in 1550 that the relationship between the Spanish and the Native Americans should be governed by justice and compassion. Today, American Catholics face a question similar to the one that Las Casas and Sepúlveda debated four hundred and fifty years ago.
How should we respond to the nation’s new immigrants—particularly the undocumented? Shall we respond like Sepúlveda did, concluding that illegal immigrants are unworthy of our compassion? Or will our faith call us to be the intellectual and spiritual heirs of Las Casas and conclude that as Catholics we have a duty to work for justice, dignity and fair treatment for the nation’s immigrants, whether or not they have their immigration documents.