Legal Immigration and the Urgency of Escape

(In anticipation of Thursday’s episode about Latino immigration, I have written a reflection about current language around this issue.)

I have made it very clear, from the beginning, how much I have tried to keep political discourse out of this podcast. Politics make me very queezy, especially in the American political discourse. But I do think that in order to have an honest discussion about Latino immigration, and its subsequent impact on the American Catholic Church, I needed to offer a bit of an disclaimer in our everyday vernacular about immigration.

And I think it might help to start with an analogy.

Often times, when people in older generations talk about technology, they’ll say things like this: “When I was your age, we used to WRITE LETTERS!”

Now don’t get me wrong; I LOVE getting letters. I’m 33 years old and still get excited about snail mail. But here’s the thing: older generations wrote letters because they didn’t actually have any other way of communicating. They often HAD to write letters. Criticizing modern technology simply because it wasn’t around when you were younger has always seemed silly to me. The analogy just simply doesn’t work. And in the same way, when we compare the immigration systems of our ancestors and today,  the two historical realities are simply incomparable.

I couldn’t quite seem to articulate this properly in my episode, so I figured I would do it here. Often when discussion about immigration occurs, it is almost always framed in terms of “legality.”

Now let’s be clear right off the bat: there are good people on both sides of this issue. And the Church has in one breath defended the rights of the migrant, and defended the rights of a country to protect their borders. (see CCC 2241)

As Catholic Americans, most of us can trace at least part of our history back to the first three great migrations of Catholics from Europe, beginning in the Colonial period and through the early 20th century. And here is the important point to make: during this period, of almost 150 years, there was no formal immigration law, at least in the way we know it today. Before 1924, you had to be “registered” at the border, but the border was basically fluid. People could come and go, and this was the case in the Northeast as it was in the Southwest.

And remember this: it was the United States government which made it this way. We were resource rich but people poor, and the only way for us to survive and thrive as a nation was to welcome the immigrant worker. Immigration is how both the economy and the American way of life grew and expanded.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act or the first Congressional Immigration Act was enacted by Congress. This established a system for obtaining citizenship and a border patrol for the southern border. This is the point where the American discussion on immigration and legality first begins.

So to compare the legality of the migrants to today with the migrants of the past simply isn’t possible, because they were operating within two different systems. We can compare them in other ways, of course (that’s what this series is all about!), but it is here I will offer one additional disclaimer.

In this episode, I do not talk about what I believe just immigration laws would look like. While some work has been done in this arena from members of our hierarchy (and the Kino Border Initiative has some ideas on their website as well which I recommend reading) I do not address this issue because I am not a policy expert.

But I will say this: often forgotten in our discussion is the length it sometimes requires to obtain legal entrance into our country. This process can take months, if not years, before obtaining the required papers. Then, of course, there is the cost of travel, finding employment or sponsors, and acquiring housing. And years, sadly, is something many people do not have.

Our ancestors wouldn’t have had years.

Had our immigration system been applicable when our ancestors came over, then I doubt many of us would be here. The Irish would have faced the starvation of the potato famine, the Italians and Poles would have faced the continued persecution of new authoritarian regimes, etc. Our ancestors had the benefit of coming to America in their urgency because of loose immigration policies. For us to be upset that an immigrant doesn’t go through the legal process when their lives are at stake is, unfortunately, forgetting an important part of our own family’s urgency of escape.

Like I said, I wish I could provide more concrete answers to these very difficult questions. I am not a policy expert, and honestly have no idea what laws can and should be implemented (other than the suggested links I provided). But in this episode, we will not discuss the current policies of our government. Because I am not an expert, I simply didn’t feel comfortable venturing into that space. So  here IS what will be covered in Thursday’s episode:

1. Examining the history of the migration of Hispanic peoples, from the founding of the colonies, through the Civil war and into the 20th century

2. Understanding how and why the Church responded differently to the Latino population. 

3. Visiting a Catholic organization doing important Gospel-centered work at the border

4. Seeking to understand how we all have a responsibility when it comes to both ministering to Hispanic Catholics in our own communities, and standing up for the humanity of the migrant at the border.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this issue and about this episode. We ventured into a territory with this episode which we knew would draw high emotions, but we hope that our podcast can lay the foundation for thoughtful and respectful dialogue.

God bless you! For further questions or discussions, please visit our contact page for my email.

Jules Miles

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