Part 3: Illegal Immigration; Perceptions of an Oppressive State
Ocean State Current: Immigration. In the past, you’ve put immigration in terms of Jesus’ instruction to welcome strangers. I think the objection to that has mostly to do with the fact that, in our current practice of government, that amounts to welcoming them into a generous collection of services, for which the rest of us are forced to pay. Is that a problem within the theological construct of welcoming strangers?
Bishop Thomas Tobin: Well, I think the way you’ve phrased it’s a problem. When you talk about providing a prize and people come into the country, then we’re forced to pay for it, that’s sort of a left-handed way of beginning the conversation, I think.
The Current: Or right-handed.
Tobin: Again, the teaching of the Church is pretty clear on some of those things. Everybody has to understand what the Church has said about the whole issue. First of all, the Church is very clear about saying every nation has a right to establish and protect its own borders, and to secure those borders. That’s a basic national principle that the Church has been very clear about.
So, nobody’s suggesting that we should have porous borders or no borders. Every nation, including the United States has a right to have secure and enforced borders.
Another principle the Church talks about, with immigration, is to be sure that the immigrants who are here are treated as human beings, regardless of their documentation status — that they’re children of God, our brothers and sisters, and they have the right to basic human needs. They shouldn’t be persecuted, abused, attacked, denounced; families shouldn’t be separated by widespread workplace immigration raids. Families should be kept together. So, there are very basic policies in place.
The Church also talks about the need to correct the conditions in the sending countries that cause immigration. That’s part of the teachings of the Church, as well.
And that immigration should reflect the reality. We need migrant workers, for example. We need that labor force in our country. Shouldn’t there be a way to regularize that, to make it legal, without tearing down all of our borders and our fences and our walls.
So, again, there are several different issues that come together. My basic thrust, and what I’ve said and written, is that those who are here, whether it’s 11 million or 14 million or whatever the number might be today, need to be treated as human beings. They are our brothers and sisters.
While we have laws that should be enforced, what do we do with the people who are here. I think that’s where the most obvious Christian challenge is.
The Current: Does it create a difficulty in that approach that, perhaps, it’s in a sense spiritually damaging to them that they’re encouraged to see leniency and financial support as a morally binding restriction on voters or taxpayers?
Tobin: Yes, I suppose. In very common parlance, nobody should assume the role of being a freeloader. Everybody has some sense of personal responsibility, and everyone should contribute to the wellbeing of society.
So, if this were to become a permanent situation, where people just come in and presume that they have the right to take services and benefits and funding from other people, that would be wrong. That would be unjust, from a different perspective.
But I think the experience with immigration has been that, when people can get through a period of transition, then indeed, they become contributing, productive members of the society and culture. So, I think when we’re talking about dealing with the immigrants who are here, we need to do it in a way that ensures their human rights and dignity, helps them to keep their families together, and gives them a path, a path to the future, a path forward.
You know, we complain that immigrants don’t pay taxes, but we don’t allow them to take jobs above board. We complain that they don’t become part of the mainstream of society, and they stay to themselves, but we make it almost impossible for them to do that. We complain that they haven’t followed the immigration laws of the country, but the immigration laws are very demanding and very obtuse and very complex, that almost nobody could follow them.
So, on one hand, we’re saying, “Here’s what we want you to do.” On the other hand, we’re saying, “We make it almost impossible for you to do it.”
But the focus has been on the children and the families that are already here, and how do we deal with those folks? If they were to become part of a permanent welfare state, for example, or a welfare underclass, I don’t think anybody wants that, and nobody would encourage that.
The Current: Beyond the welfare and such, I think what I’m getting at is more of a spiritual hazard. For example, I think within the last year, there was a story in the Providence Journal about a man who had come here, and it was very descriptive of him being torn away from his family by economic circumstances, I think in Guatemala. He was here for twenty-something years, and for the interview, he needed a translator, so he hadn’t learned English, and he was arguing that he ought to be able to stay here — not to tear him away from his family again.
Now, is there a moral hazard in that sort of position? Because he knew through those twenty years that deportation was a consequence of a decision he made — rightly made. Is that a moral hazard to say, “No, the rules shouldn’t apply”?
Tobin: A moral hazard for him, you mean? Yes, I suppose, and I suppose among the immigrant community there are people who are filled with moral hazards, as there are among the domestic community, as well. So, you point to an individual like that, saying, “Well, he hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do. He’s been here twenty years, hasn’t learned the language, hasn’t been involved.”
So, maybe he’s not terribly responsible. Maybe not very mature. Maybe he’s not, again, very responsible, but that’s true across the board. I can go up and down the streets anywhere and say, “Here’s an individual that hasn’t been very responsible. Here’s someone who hasn’t been very mature. Here’s somebody who has been lazy.”
I can find that in the domestic population as well as the immigrant community, so that’s a human thing. I don’t think it’s an immigrant virtue.
The Current: No, I definitely wouldn’t imply that, but if public policy, and in the Church teaching (in the person of you) encourages a policy, that increases the risks of those moral hazards, should that come into consideration?
Tobin: Well, again, there has to be a balance. We do not encourage illegal immigration, as you suggested before. That’s not good for anybody. That’s not good for the immigrants. It’s not good for the sending countries. It’s not good for our country. It’s not good for our local communities. Nobody encourages or promotes illegal immigration.
The law should be clear. The borders should be strong and enforced. Employment laws should not encourage illegal immigration. None of that’s helpful to anybody.
So, if some of those laws or systems or the teachings of the Church encourage bad behavior, that has to be addressed. Nobody’s encouraging bad behavior.
I think what we’re saying, though, is for those folks who are here, how do we treat them? And what are the alternatives?
If we don’t work with the undocumented people who are here, if we don’t work with them and try to encourage them to get on the right path, encourage them to be responsible, give them opportunities, the options are what? Either we keep them in that subcaste indefinitely, or do we have that specter of rounding them up in buses or box cars and trying to ship them back to the borders and back to their countries.
Is that the kind of country or nation we want to be, or is it even feasible to do that?
So, when we talk about working with, helping, encouraging illegal immigrants, one of the real practical questions is, if we don’t do that, what are the options? Do we just keep them that way forever? Do we try to round them up and send them home? Or do we work with them? I think that’s the practical thing.
Again, let me emphasize: Nobody is encouraging illegal immigration, and nobody is encouraging the breaking of the laws. We have people who are here de facto, and how do we respond to that population? Do we try to suppress them, keep them in the shadows? Prevent them from getting jobs? Prevent them from being together as families, having housing, having education? Or do we work with them and say, “Let’s see what we can make of this that’s positive”?
That’s just a real practical question, I think.
The Current: My last question wasn’t on my list until this morning, but I’ve been getting so much feedback from people on things I’ve written or published online, and specifically, people who’ve left or are considering leaving Rhode Island. They all express this feeling of hopelessness and exclusion from the governing structure, here.
It’s about taxes, political corruption, and also for many, it’s about the things that the state gives away, which can include in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. (Not that I want to drift back into immigration.) Is it an appropriate concern for the Church that the state itself is having this effect on people, or does that drift too far into political weeds?
Tobin: No, it’s in the wellbeing of the state, and the wellbeing of the Church, that we have a healthy state. It’s in the wellbeing of all of our citizens and their families that the state be healthy and prosperous, both materially and spiritually.
That helps everybody. It helps individuals, it helps children, it helps families, it helps our non-profit organizations, it helps our schools, it helps churches, if our state is prosperous, both financially (materially) and spiritually.
So, if we have conditions that are holding that down, if we have conditions that are driving people out of the state, that should be a concern for us.
Now, you probably have to be more of a political scientist than I am to understand this. But, you sit in Rhode Island, you read the newspapers and hear the stories and listen to the talk shows and all the debates about unions and pensions and political corruption and cronyism and all these things that allegedly happen only in Rhode Island.
You know, I go home in Pittsburgh for vacation; the headlines are the same there. Or I get newspapers from Ohio. Now, is it more extreme in one place than another? Possibly; I don’t know. I’m not the one to measure that. But I think some of the issues that we deal with, here, are not as different as we really think they are, as opposed to other places.
They’ve had political corruption in Massachusetts, and they have unemployment in Ohio and in Michigan and Indiana. You know, our rates are higher in some things, lower in others.
I think sometimes, in Rhode Island, we’ve lost that sense of our state motto of “Hope,” and we’ve become so, maybe because we’re so small, we’re so introspective, that I wonder sometimes if it seems worse than it really is, and that becomes a downward spiral. I’m not sure.
But a lot of the problems that we deal with are human problems, and societal problems that exist elsewhere. But if our state is being held down in some way, financially and morally and spiritually, if it’s causing people to leave the state, that should be a concern for everybody. For the state. Local towns and cities. For the Church. For the non-profits. For the schools.
I guess the question, then, if we can identify the problems, what can we do to fix them.
The Current: What could, or would, the Church be in a position, the diocese, to do?
Tobin: Well, I think the role of the Church, again, is to preach and to teach and to try to provide social services. And try to encourage people in their own morale and their own sense of hope.
When people go to church on Sundays, hopefully they hear challenging messages, but also a message of hope and not being discouraged and not giving up. And hopefully they hear some of these basic moral virtues — about caring for one another and reaching out to the poor and supporting your own marriage and family, and hanging on to some of these moral values.
And not being embarrassed by the presence of God. As I’ve said so often in lots of contexts, we are living in a very secular and atheistic society, and I think we do that to our own detriment.
So, if people are going to church, synagogue, or temple — whatever — hopefully they’re hearing some of these messages that challenge them in a good way and give them some sense of hope and virtue. And that comes back; that feeds our society, I think, and makes it better.