A few weeks ago I was listening to a conservative talk radio personality, a habit of mine which is increasingly becoming difficult to justify. I listened in the past because often these programs were the only place to hear an alternative to what I received from my other news sources. Now, however, the internet and the world is replete with alternatives. Indeed it’s all about alternatives. Everyone thinks they are the alternative…but I digress.
This talk radio personality is not just conservative but Catholic and prides themselves on being Catholic. Nevertheless, it is on this program that I have heard some of the most stupid – yes I used the word which my children know ought not be used in the house – but really stooopid statements being said about immigrants and immigration. It’s inspired me to set down my thoughts on the subject.
Things here in Nebraska have, it seems, always been a bit heated when it comes to immigration. Of late there have been proposed laws and ordinances that have brought the issue to the fore. I don’t think it appropriate for me to comment on them directly right now, but I do want to address the question of immigration itself from the point of view of social doctrine – you know that Church teaching about which the majority of Catholics know very little.
Let’s start with the right to life.
So just clear your mind of any arguments or tensions, anything you think you might want me to write down. Just relax and think about the right to life. You and I both know it is at the center of our belief, of our approach to social questions. Cardinal Bernadin, whether you agree with him or not, at least calls his approach a consistent ethic of life. Life is the key. It’s what’s most important. Yes? Yes.
So what is necessary for life? Well, food, clothing, shelter, clean water. I could argue that more than this is necessary, but let’s just start there. These four things are necessary for life.
Next, would it make much sense for me to have a right to life but not have a right to these four things? Or let me put it this way, does it make sense for me to tell you that you’ve a right to life but don’t have a right to food and water? That would make my right to life meaningless. So if these four things are necessary for me to maintain life, then for my right to life to mean anything I have to have these four things. I therefore have a right to these four things. Have I lost anyone thus far? Alright, so if I have a right to life and a right to these four things that maintain life, then I must have a right to access those things.
How do I access things like food and water and shelter and clothing? Well, unless you are gifted by being related to some wealthy uncle or some such personage and unless you live in the universe of James T. Kirk and the NCC-1701 Enterprise where you can go to the replicator and just ask for anything your wee little heart desires, you usually labor for those things. Either you have a job that pays you a wage with which you buy these things. Or you make them yourself with the natural resources around you. Very few have all the natural resources necessary to meet all these needs, though, much less the time and energy to accomplish access, so labor is the typical way we access all or some of these things.
Since labor is necessary to access the four basic things, and since the four basic things are necessary for life, and since I have a right to life, then I have a right to labor. I have a right to work. This is not some secret Marxist plot, some canard devised by devilish, commie revolutionaries in dashing berets and musty-smelling stogies. The right to work comes out of the right to life. See?
Alright, so if all of the above is true, then you have these rights and they are natural to you. They are inalienable, since the right to life is inalienable. Therefore, these rights don’t stop at a border. It’s not like the right to life is a right granted you by the State of North Dakota so that once you’ve crossed the border into, say, Saskatchewan you’re all-of-a-sudden deprived of your right to life. The right isn’t dependent on this government or that government. The right is part of you. Now Saskatchewaneans (say that three times fast) might imprison you for disobeying their laws of sovereignty, but they cannot deprive you of your right to laboring for food so as to maintain life unless they meet those basic needs themselves.
Now picture yourself with this right to life and right to food and right to access the food and thus the right to work. Got it? You’re shuffling about your shelter that perfectly manages to keep the wind off of you, though it’s not so good about the cold. The dirt floor remains dry, thank goodness, I mean when it’s not the rainy season. Speaking of which, because of its the rainy season you cannot do much harvesting and the previous year’s crop wasn’t so good. You’re belly rumbles as you’re considering this conundrum, which is something else because its hard to hear the belly rumble over the cough of your wife, who’s had that cough for far too long to be any good for her.
Now imagine your 3 year old daughter looking up at you with her big eyes saying, “Papa I’m hungry,” whilst knowing that there is no food in the house to give her because there is no work and thus no access and thus no food and so there will eventually be no life behind those big eyes looking at you so pleadingly. Do you see that? Could we stay with that for a moment?
Okay, so why not go to the next state over in order to exercise your right to work, so that you can send back access (money), so that she can get food, so that she can live? I mean you’d be breaking the law, their laws, and laws are good. We know that. But you see there’s this little girl…
Now in the midst of all of this I hear from the back corner of my bedeviled little brain the word, “Amnesty! They’ve broken the law, and undermining the rule of law will lead to chaos.” A calmer voice, no less intent, says, “But nations have the right to sovereignty and their own borders.”
I kind of agree with some of these points. Why shouldn’t I? I am a big fan of the rule of law. The thought of jaywalking sends spasms down my conscience’s spine. But I recognize that civil laws are man-made and rights are granted by the Creator. So, the right trumps the law. Or I’ll put it this way, the laws must serve rights. In fact some rights are so fundamental, like the inalienable rights that it doesn’t matter that your an alien. You’ve still got those rights regardless of the law.
Now, nations do have a right to sovereignty. I grow tired of the voice that says, “Borders are an invention of man, and so we don’t have to pay attention to them.” I’m not saying that borders or laws ought to be ignored, as though there were no consequence to doing so. No. We do have to pay attention to them. People have a right to govern themselves. The question is, does their right to sovereignty trump your right to life? Remember our point at the beginning. Life is the key. Without it, all the other rights are useless.
See the Church argues that your right to life trumps the nation’s right to sovereignty, unless of course your pursuit of life itself endangers the lives of other people. If the influx of immigrants were so great as to cause a collapse of the host nation’s infrastructure, well then prudence must be applied. There’s no point in trying to respect your right to life as an immigrant while trampling on that same right amongst the citizens. But these, my friends, are rare situations.
We spend upwards of $45.4 billion a year on…pets. Yes, that’s right. Despite the astoundingly bad economy and the millions of dollars of debt – both private and federal – that the citizens of this nation carry on their shoulders, somehow we manage to spend that much money on little animals that provide absolutely no measurable benefit for the commonwealth, the arts, or most importantly, the advancement of baseball training facilities for toddlers and pee-wees. Did you know, for instance, that November is Pet Cancer Awareness Month? Pet Cancer has reached epidemic proportions. We have time to worry and organize a whole month around this issue, but we are simultaneously concerned about the economic impact of immigrants who actually contribute to society and the economy?
Something tells me we can handle, as a nation, the immigrants who come risking life and limb so that they can feed their daughters and sons, or purchase the $2.00 worth of medicine for their wife’s cough so that she can have a decent night’s sleep. We can handle this influx of immigrants. Really we can.
At the back of my mind there is another voice that says, “You’ve forgotten a very important thing, Omar…if that’s your real name. If you’ve a right to work, then you’ve a right to demand that of someone else. How can you have a right to have someone else do something for you?” Ahh, yes. The freedom-means-never-having-to-do-what-someone-else-tells-me-to-do-ever argument.
Well apart from the fact that this position sounds to me more like the response from the self-important high-school sophomore who thinks he’s just made a clever point, my answer is that this question is rooted in the very wrong idea that we are or can be self-made men, that we are all somehow capable of eschewing the need for community and social aid.
We depend on other people doing things for us all the time. This is what an advanced society is based on. When someone stops at the red light, they are helping us. When they don’t do this, they get stopped by the police and are given a lovely missive on which are explicit instructions not to do this again. This missive also requires that they take some of their own money, money they earned through hard labor, and give it to the people in the big building downtown. In other words, I have the right to expect that they stop at the light when its red. Why? Because I have a right to life and safety, things which are severely in jeopardy if anyone can just breeze through intersections at dangerous speeds.
Notice, now, that I’ve just made an argument for our obligations to others rights without mentioning God. If I can expect behavior from someone else based on civic duty, how much more ought I be able to expect from someone who is Catholic?
And this is the thing that kills me about that radio personality I mentioned at the start and about many who engage in this debate. As trite as it sounds, what do we honestly think Jesus would have us do? Would he really tell you that you had to go back home to watch your child starve rather than dare to sully the right to sovereignty of Saskatchewan? Honestly?
And lets be clear about something else here, the vast majority of these immigrants are coming to survive! They aren’t seeking out spending cash for their girlfriend or a little something by which to pad their retirement fund. They don’t have a kitchen to remodel, or a trip to Rome to save up for. These are all things we can imagine ourselves doing. No, they seek labor so that they and their family can EAT!
I don’t like being preachy or a scoldy-pants. Forgive me. The bottom line is that amongst the various rights and responsibilities that exist in this situation around immigration the right to life of the immigrant receives the first priority. Reform of the immigration laws has to take place. The laws we have in place are relatively new; they don’t work well; they are needlessly bureaucratic. I know because I had to use them to get my Canadian mail-order bride. Not to mention, of course, that the process is very expensive.
Bottom line, friends, is that if you’re struggling on this immigration thing or know someone who is, please do what my boss Archbishop George J. Lucas says and sit and pray – preferably before the Blessed Sacrament. Who knows, you might find an Hispanic immigrant there with you, and you can pray for them too.
Long live Christ the King.