To those who accused Jesus of breaking the laws of his day, he replied: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2: 27) This teaching underscores the point that positive law, even Divine positive law, is meant to benefit not to enslave mankind. The patriots, who broke the law by tossing tea into Boston Harbor, understood this – as did Rosa Parks, who broke the law by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. When laws fail to advance the common good, they can and should be changed
Our Immigration laws need to be changed: they are antiquated and inadequate for the promotion and regulation of social and economic relations of 21st century America. On this point everyone is seemingly agreed. However, the solutions proposed should not make the situation worse. Outdated laws, ill adapted to the increasing interdependence of our world and the globalization of labor, are bad laws. However, proposed changes must take into account both human dignity and the national interest: otherwise, bad laws will be replaced by worse ones.
For this reason, the U.S. Bishops and a broad bi-partisan coalition ranging from Unions to Chambers of Commerce have supported broad comprehensive immigration reform that, while addressing future needs for labor by providing for a legal guest worker program, also offers an “earned” path to legalization for those 10 million or so workers already in the country as well as fixing the unacceptable backlogs for family reunification visas that keep families separated for intolerable lengths of time.
A narrow, restrictive legislation focusing on solely “enforcement” will only make matters worse. Indeed, a billion dollars has been spent on border enforcement over the past ten years – and yet illegal immigration has increased because the labor market has demanded willing and able workers. Illegal immigration should not be tolerated – for it leads to the abuse and exploitation of the migrants themselves; and, ultimately, businesses which rely on their labor – and, in doing so, help fuel the growth of the American economy - would prefer and benefit from a reliable and legal work force. But, fixing illegal immigration does not require the “demonization” of the so called “illegals”. America has always been a land of promise and opportunity for those willing to work hard. We can provide for our national security and secure borders without making America, a nation of immigrants, less a land of promise or opportunity for immigrants.
Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel, Les Miserables, tells how pride and neglect of mercy represented in the bitterly zealous legalism of Inspector Javert ultimately destroys him. Today, modern day Javerts, on radio and T.V. talk shows, fan flames of resentment against supposed law breakers equating them with terrorists intent on hurting us. However, these people only ask for the opportunity to become legal – to come out of the shadows where they live in fear of a knock on their door in the dead of night or an immigration raid to their work place. Like Jean Valjean, today’s migrants only look for the opportunity to redeem themselves through honest work. This is the point of the Massive demonstrations that have taken place throughout the country.
Today, many take umbrage at the Catholic Bishops’ advocacy on behalf of these “illegals” – but, in doing so, we stand in a proud moral tradition, like the novel’s benevolent Bishop Myriel, who gave his candlesticks to the desperate Jean Valjean and protected him from arrest by Javert. For this reason, we call upon the legislative branch of our government to seize the opportunity for a comprehensive fix to our broken immigration system. We backed the bi-partisan McCain-Kennedy proposal – and, while the Martinez-Hagel compromise needs work, it moves our nation in the right direction and should be passed.
A nation that honors law breakers like the patriots of the “Boston Tea Party”, a nation that can allow the dignified defiance of Rosa Parks in her act of lawbreaking to touch its conscience, is a nation that also can make room for modern-day Jean Valjeans. We can be a nation of laws, without becoming a nation of Javerts. As Jesus reminded the embittered zealots of his day, laws are designed for the benefit – not the harm – of humankind.