The U.S. Catholic Bishops: Right on Immigration, Wrong on Immigration Reform

This piece was previously posted at Millennial Journal

The Bishops Take a Stand

Left-leaning Catholics are used to being disappointed: disappointed by the Republican Party, for its apparent indifference to the economic travails of the working class; disappointed by the Democratic Party, for its slow but steady drift away from a big tent approach and toward the same with-us-or-against-us culture war mentality on divisive social issues that has overtaken the GOP; disappointed by conservatives within the Church, who insist that Catholics are morally obligated to vote against pro-choice politicians, but that one’s views on war and peace, gun control, poverty reduction, or the death penalty are merely matters of “prudential judgment;” disappointed by the media, which have tended to portray developments within the Church, justly or unjustly, in a generally negative light (at least until the election of Francis); and disappointed by the Catholics who in turn portray the media as persecuting the Church and who equate sophisticated anti-Catholicism in America with the mass murder of Christians in the developing world.

In recent years, these Catholics have also at times been disappointed by the Bishops, who so often demonstrate their political tone-deafness and frustrating knack for contributing to at least some of the trends driving intolerance of the Church in modern society. While those most sympathetic to the Bishops’ political positions and rhetorical strategies are certainly correct in claiming that they often do talk about other things that the mainstream media simply fail to notice, they tend to overlook the fact that there really are dramatic disparities in the amount and nature of attention the Bishops pay to different issues. Sure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has spoken out against the GOP majority’s sustained push in the House of Representatives to cut funding for nutritional assistance programs, but have they sponsored a “Fortnight for Food Stamps” to rally Catholics against the Republicans’ attacks on the social safety net?

Given the expectation among liberal Catholics that reading a front-page story about the Bishops’ latest comments on matters of public policy will quite possibly result in vigorous facepalming, it ought to be especially satisfying to see the USCCB not only siding largely with President Obama and the Democrats on the issue of immigration reform, but backing the cause with nearly as much energy as it spent fighting the administration over the Affordable Care Act. Although the issue is in danger of slipping off the political radar entirely as Washington is consumed by another series of fiscal skirmishes and the current government shutdown, it seems that their commitment to making sure it doesn’t disappear is genuine and strong.

It really ought to be satisfying, but alas, it isn’t. As happy as I am to see the Bishops endorsing a legislative initiative of the Democratic Party with the full force of the episcopal bully pulpit and finally drawing public attention to the fact that the social vision of the Church does not map perfectly onto the platform of either major party, I’m afraid I have to point out that I think the Bishops have gotten this one wrong, too.

Mind you, this is not to say that they should be backing the majority Republican view. To the extent that the dominant conservative position on immigration is founded upon principled objections to the sort of proposals that have been embraced by most congressional Democrats and many congressional Republicans (and not on raw xenophobia), it is largely misguided as well. Ever longer and taller border fences are probably not the best use of public resources.

It is also not to suggest that their hearts are in the wrong place. I am well aware of the irony involved in appropriating the argument that Catholics can differ over matters of “prudential judgment” but not over “fundamental moral precepts” when I just alluded in my opening paragraph to the way in which that argument has been used as a cudgel by those with a minimalist understanding of what it means to be pro-life. That said, I really do think the Bishops are right about the principles that ought to inform the immigration debate, if not about the policy. In fact, I think they’re more right about those principles than most of the politicians involved in the ongoing national conversation, including many Democrats.

In an editorial published in USA Today several months back, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and current President of the USCCB, opened by saying that

[i]mmigration reform is an issue close to Catholic hearts. America has wonderfully welcomed generations of immigrant families, and our parishes, schools and charitable ministries have long helped successfully integrate immigrants into American life.

This column kicked off a summer of advocacy by the Bishops, which included preaching about immigration at Sunday Masses and lobbying Catholic legislators to support reform. The New York Times at the end of August quoted Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the USCCB, as saying that “[w]e want to try to pull out all the stops… They have to hear the message that we want this done…”

On June 27th, the United States Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (BSEOIMA) of 2013, the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill authored by Senators Bennet, Durbin, Flake, Graham, McCain, Menendez, Rubio, and Schumer. Not only does the bill deviate from the Washington norm of naming legislation with clever backronyms – they couldn’t have thought of something pithier than “BSEOIMA”? – it also fails to comport with the norms of justice and fairness that the Bishops have declared must be made manifest in any overhaul of the immigration system.

As I see it, the BSEOIMA should be opposed (by everyone, but especially by the Bishops) for three primary reasons:

  1. The bill moves U.S. immigration law away from a system that values and prioritizes family unity and toward one that evaluates potential entrants on the basis of their economic utility;
  2. The bill expands so-called “guestworker programs” that offer immigrants little recourse in the event of mistreatment or exploitation by their employers;
  3. The bill threatens to exacerbate deeply entrenched economic problems that affect the well-being of large segments of the American population, without taking any measures whatsoever to counteract these trends.

Competing Visions of the Purpose of Immigration

Currently, U.S. immigration law allows U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain categories of relatives in their own bids to legally enter the country. Although permanent residents are only permitted to sponsor their spouse or child, citizens may also sponsor their parents or siblings. The Gang of Eight bill would put an end to sponsorship of siblings.

It gets worse, though. Since there are quotas on the number of visas that can be issued for each category of family member in a given year, as well as restrictions on the percentage of these visas that can go to potential entrants from given parts of the globe, there are long waiting lines to be approved for legal entry – lines that can last for decades. The Gang of Eight bill does not simply bar the brothers and sisters of American citizens or permanent residents from petitioning for citizenship in the future, it actively culls those who are currently standing in line. Relatives who have been waiting for years to join their loved ones in America will now be denied the opportunity to do so.

And for what purpose? There might understandably be a need to tighten up the law if citizens and green-card holders were allowed to sponsor third cousins twice-removed, and there is little doubt that the difficulty of detecting fraudulent petitions would increase if such distant relatives were permitted to petition for entry. But we’re talking about brothers and sisters!

It turns out that the purpose of this provision has nothing to do with preventing fraud. Rather, it is motivated by the belief that decisions about which immigrants to welcome into the country should be based on judgments about their expected economic value. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Gang of Eight, has declared that

[g]reen cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country. This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about [sic] an economic need.

This vision of the ultimate purpose of immigration is directly at odds with that of the Church, as articulated by Dolan in the editorial quoted earlier:

[F]amily unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must be a cornerstone of immigration reform, because strong families are the foundation of the robust communities that integrate immigrants into American life.

One can try to interpret the allusion to the “union of a husband and wife” in a number of different ways. It could be a reference to the issue of same-sex marriage, which has since been divorced from the immigration debate by the Supreme Court’s June ruling invalidating Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It could even be an endorsement of Lindsey Graham’s position that only the “nuclear family” should qualify for preferential treatment under immigration law.

Yet it is undeniable that these are in fact two radically divergent understandings of what immigration is for. According to the utilitarian perspective that sees green cards as “economic engines,” immigration is only a means to an end. The immigrant is granted the privilege of entering our country on the grounds that he is likely to be more productive than others who are similarly situated. According to the Church though, immigration is a natural right. As the Catechism puts it,

[t]he more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

In Graham’s opinion, the purpose of immigration law is to restrict the entry of those who will not increase America’s GDP; in the Church’s view, legal restrictions on immigration are at best a necessary evil, a kind of administrative inevitability that should interfere as little as possible with the right of foreigners to seek “the means of livelihood which they cannot find in their country of origin.” Of course, “various juridical conditions” like visas, background checks, and the like will always be necessary to keep track of newcomers and to ensure that they are not engaging in criminal activity or otherwise threatening the well-being of others. Restrictions on the entry of individuals with communicable diseases might also be an example of sensible regulation in this area.

Now, it is certainly true that even “prosperous nations” are limited in the number of immigrants that they can reasonably be expected to welcome, especially if the immigrants that they receive end up requiring public assistance or the help of the social safety net. Difficult choices about whom to turn away are unavoidable, and it is entirely appropriate to consider skills and employability when making the tough calls. This doesn’t change the fact that family unity ought to be the priority. It should not be considered a luxury or treated as a subordinate concern. If we faced a situation in which we were up against the absolute limit of how many immigrants we could let in to the U.S., then it might be justifiable to cancel sibling sponsorship so as to maintain sponsorship for parents and children. We are clearly up against no such constraint.

The page on the USCCB website devoted to comprehensive immigration reform says that “[c]hanges to family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.” Nowhere does it specify that only “nuclear families” count as families. Although the theology of the Church certainly privileges marriage as a unique kind of relationship, it would be disingenuous to claim that the Bishops do not have other relations in mind when they speak of “family unity.”

During the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010, a small bloc of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) signaled that they would not vote for the final legislation unless stronger protections were included to ensure that federal funds would not be used to pay for elective abortions. President Obama was ultimately able to secure their votes by signing an executive order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion, but the USCCB was not satisfied. It continued to oppose a piece of legislation that advanced an objective which the Bishops themselves had deemed to be of vital importance – access to healthcare for the poor and uninsured – on account of a hypothetical harm.

If the Bishops were willing to fight legislation containing provisions that could possibly have resulted in outcomes that the Catholic Church would find unacceptable, then surely they must be willing to resist a bill that will in fact lead to the continuation of inhumane policies. Yet anyone who considers it a close call need not base his opposition on this one provision about sibling migration. Even more insidious than the changes to the rules governing family sponsorship are the portions that relate to so-called “guestworker programs.”

The Exploitation of Guestworkers

There are currently two major types of visas granted by the United States: immigrant visas (“green cards”), which are given to “permanent residents” who are seeking to eventually become naturalized citizens, and non-immigrant visas, which include those issued to tourists and others who will only be in the country for a limited period of time.

This latter category also includes the H1-B, H2-A, and H2-B visas, which are issued to skilled professionals (those with a bachelor’s degree or higher), non-skilled agricultural workers, and non-skilled workers in other sectors, respectively. The Gang of Eight bill would not only increase the annual cap on the H1-B visas by over 100,000 per year, but it would create new guestworker programs.

One of these, the “W visa,” would issue up to 200,000 permits to those seeking work in construction, retail, and other sectors. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that describes itself as “pro-immigrant” but in favor of “low immigration” and that describes its mission as creating an America “that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted,” the Gang of Eight bill “would increase annual temporary worker admissions by more than 600,000 each year over the current level.”

Why is this a bad thing? Doesn’t this dovetail with the Catechism’s call for governments to facilitate the migration of those seeking to work hard to improve their lot? Not necessarily. Recipients of H1 or H2 visas are granted a residency status that is contingent on their continued employment by the particular firm that sponsors them. This means that they have to leave the U.S. almost immediately in the event that they are let go by that firm. It’s easy to see how this puts guestworkers in a precarious situation. If they do anything to rock the boat, they can be dismissed and sent back to their home country.

Mary Bauer, the former Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, testified to Congress back in 2008 that H2-A and H2-B visa holders are routinely cheated out of wages and sometimes made to endure abusive work conditions. She argued that “[g]uestworkers… live in a system akin to indentured servitude” and provided numerous examples of troubling and exploitative practices, including workers who are paid less than half the minimum wage but who “because of their vulnerability… are unlikely to complain about these violations;” some whose employers “refuse to provide [them] access to their own identity documents, such as passports and Social Security cards” in order to “guarantee that [they] remain in their employ;” and others who suffer serious injuries but are “discouraged” from filing for workers’ compensation lest they invite investigation of their employer’s problematic business practices. Bauer urged Congress at the time to do away with these programs, or at least reform them so as to stop these abuses. Yet Congress is not currently discussing whether to continue them, but how much to expand them.

There are many reasons why adding 600,000 temporary workers to the American labor force every year might not be ideal. The possible exploitation of a not insignificant share of those workers is one important reason. Another is the deleterious impact of drastically expanding the labor force during the worst period of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

Of Salaries and “Super-Immigrants”

While we should generally be skeptical of complaints that a certain view is not being given a fair hearing in the political arena because it has been sidelined by the “elite consensus,” it is true that there is wide-ranging agreement along the whole spectrum from left to right that increasing the level of skilled immigration would be good for America. Highly intelligent and capable immigrants are, according to the conventional wisdom, likely to develop products or ideas that will lead to more employment and a better standard of living for domestic workers.

Even immigration reform critics like Daily Beast writer David Frum and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat are generally supportive of increasing the number of high-skilled visas, and the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives at one point signaled an openness to working on legislation in this area. Stony Brook economics professor Noah Smith once wondered on his blog what constituency could possibly be against such a win-win policy, writing that “for the life of me, I can’t figure out who is against high-skilled immigration.” Various others in the blogosphere have portrayed the importation of more “super-immigrants” as a free lunch for the American economy.

The problem is that talk of super-immigrants elides an important point, which is that the overwhelming majority of “skilled” immigrants, while no doubt intelligent and productive individuals, are not multifaceted geniuses and do not hold two doctorates or dozens of patents. Very few of them are Randian übermenschen who will start the next Virgin Galactic or Tesla Motors. What exactly would be the impact on the economy of bringing more of them into the United States?

The technology industry, for its part, has insisted that there are not enough American scientists and engineers to fill the positions that need to be filled. The shortfall is allegedly so severe that it can only be adequately dealt with by opening our borders to more foreign workers. Silicon Valley moguls like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have argued that firms like his increasingly have to look abroad to find the talent they need to remain competitive.

But if there really were a shortage of high-skilled workers, then the principles of supply and demand would suggest that wages would be increasing rapidly in the fields hit hardest by that shortage. Yet this is not what has been happening. According to a report from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell of the Economic Policy Institute, wages in the information technology (IT) sector and for college graduates with majors in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields “have remained flat, with real [inflation-adjusted] wages hovering around their late 1990s levels…” Their conclusion is that

[t]he IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s. Since that time, the IT industry appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects), and a guestworker supply that appears to be abundantly available even in times of relatively weak demand and even when wages decline or are stagnant… immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers appear to provide firms with access to labor that will be in plentiful supply at wages that are too low to induce a significantly increased supply from the domestic workforce.

The Center for Immigration Studies notes that this bifurcation of the labor market in certain sectors could help explain why firms that employ IT or STEM workers are so insistent that they face a shortage of talent:

Employers become accustomed to paying low wages and structure their businesses accordingly. Raising wages seems out of the question; they even [convince] themselves that wages actually don’t matter when recruiting.

Or as the economist Paul Krugman put it in a post on his blog “The Conscience of a Liberal” in late 2012,

[w]henever you see some business person quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said business person really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short.

While it may be true that there are no good arguments against increasing the number of visas for people who will revolutionize whole industries and create thousands of jobs, there is a simple argument against dramatically increasing visas for skilled workers in general: it will lead to downward pressure on wages in sectors of the economy that have seen flat or declining wages for a decade or more, without doing anything to apply countervailing pressures that might return us to a world in which incomes consistently rise over time.

If it’s true that talk of a shortage of STEM workers (or high-skilled workers more generally) is largely a myth, then there must be a veritable glut of low-skilled workers. After all, unemployment statistics have consistently shown that those in blue-collar occupations were, on average, hit harder than their white-collar counterparts by the recession and its aftermath. Yet wealthy donors to both the Republican and Democratic Parties have lobbied hard for an expansion of low-skilled visas as well, including the H2-A’s discussed above. The super-immigrant argument clearly does not apply in this case. Arguing for an increase in family-based visas that would have as an incidental side effect an increase in the population of low-skilled workers is one thing. Pushing for an increase in the number of work visas allocated to this category is much harder to justify.

What a Better Reform Might Look Like

What would immigration reform look like if we wanted to do it right? And why is the legislation discussed here sufficiently at odds with Christian notions of the common good that the Bishops should actually come out against it? It may seem that the arguments I’ve presented lead to contradictory conclusions. I began by maintaining that U.S. immigration law should be primarily family-based and that provisions regarding sponsorship of relatives should be much less restrictive. Yet I’ve also warned about the dangers of permitting unchecked immigration at a time of mass unemployment. How can we reconcile these apparently conflicting principles?

This is in some sense a false dilemma. We should not have to choose between welcoming foreigners seeking a better life in America and guaranteeing the welfare of native-born citizens. When we say that all men are created equal, we don’t mean that all American men are created equal and that everyone else is somehow secondary. Nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are ultimately no justification for offering preferential treatment to some individuals merely because they happened to grow up on a certain side of the ocean.

While I’m sympathetic to the impulse to encourage shoppers to “buy American” or to promote policies that will “insource” American jobs that have been shipped overseas, it may actually be the case that it would be best for the American economy in the long run if certain industries moved to other countries and new industries were allowed to rise up and take their place. “Our” gain does not have to come at the price of “their” loss. This need not be a zero-sum game.

At its root, the immigration debate is not, as reactionary xenophobes would have you think, about protecting the American homeland from the threat of the other. It’s about protecting the rights and dignity of all people who want to work hard and provide for their families. To that end, we should be pursuing policies that generate both a growing economic pie and that ensure that the poor and middle class are able to share in the fruits of that growth. We should be taking advantage of the fact that the federal government can borrow at historically low interest rates by putting construction workers back on the job repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We should be offering aid to struggling states and local governments to rehire police and firefighters and teachers who were laid off during the depth of the recession. Anxiety about foreign competition for American jobs would diminish dramatically if the economy were booming and anyone who wanted employment could find it.

A sensible, humane immigration policy would involve relatively open borders and would deter illegal entry, not with drones and barbed wire, but by expanding the use of systems like eVerify, which checks a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S. against government databases and which makes it harder for employers to hire undocumented migrants. To combat exploitative work arrangements, we should replace employer-based visas with permanent residency for all new entrants, not just those fortunate enough to have an employer willing and able to sponsor them – a policy that has been endorsed by professional organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This would empower workers by increasing their willingness to challenge their bosses when they act in ways that violate labor laws or nondiscrimination statutes.

As I made clear earlier, we should make family-based immigration as easy as possible and should see to it that immigrants are not separated from their loved ones whenever it is in our power to prevent that from happening. Moreover, we need to recognize that access to certain basic necessities like food or healthcare should not be dependent on legal status or lack thereof. The Gang of Eight bill contains provisions that would make those currently in the country illegally ineligible for most public assistance programs even as it supposedly puts them on a “path to citizenship.” This is an unduly punitive stance that does not advance legitimate governmental interests.

In response to the inevitable criticism that I’ve fallen into the same trap the Bishops fell into during the healthcare debate by making the perfect the enemy of the good, I’ll simply point out that the Gang of Eight bill is not merely less than ideal. I do not suggest that the Bishops ought to oppose the bill because it does not solve every problem out there. They ought to oppose the bill because it creates new problems that have no hope of being solved by any Congress we are likely to have in the near future.

This is not to suggest that it does not contain anything good at all. On the contrary, the provisions that establish the so-called path to citizenship, a process for legalizing the existing population of unauthorized immigrants, are among its most laudable features and should be eagerly welcomed (if anything, the path should be made even simpler). For many people who aim to live and work in the United States, there is currently no way for them to enter the country legally even if they wanted to. That ought to change.

Consider what the USSCB argues on its website ought to be the core elements of any attempt at comprehensive reform: an “earned legalization program;” regulations that ensure “workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity;” changes that “increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times;” and enforcement measures that are “targeted, proportional, and humane.” In my view, it’s hard to argue that the Bishops had anything like the Gang of Eight bill in mind when they wrote that list.

Some commentators have pronounced immigration reform dead for the foreseeable future, but it is possible that we may be on the cusp of a renewed push to have the House of Representatives render its judgment on the Gang of Eight bill. While I clearly would like to see this particular incarnation of reform taken off the table, it may end up being defeated for the wrong reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t “build a big enough fence.” I find it frustrating and unfortunate that I have to rain on a rare parade of bipartisanship and argue that we shouldn’t deal with an issue that Congress has actually summoned the political will to address, but I believe that the Gang of Eight bill would ultimately do more harm than good, at least without a concurrent commitment to counteract its negative effects.

The Bishops often style themselves the defenders of unpopular and countercultural truths. Indeed, one can hardly accuse them of choosing their battles out of a concern for their approval ratings. Liberal Catholics should welcome their eagerness to encourage the leaders of both parties to finally tackle the serious problems that plague our immigration system. At the same time, they should hope and pray that this is not the issue where the Bishops decide to stop being countercultural.