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The Catholic New World

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.


Prelate calls for common sense on immigration

A get-tough attitude is not enough to stay the growing influx of undocumented workers in the United States, according to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. The archbishop has witnessed the large growth of the Latino population in his see and insists that for an immigration policy to work, it must address the root, economic issues.

In this interview with Zenit, a news service with ties to the Vatican, Archbishop Chaput discusses the immigration situation in the United States, which he says Americans live "with a curious kind of schizophrenia."

Zenit: You have recently criticized the raid of undocumented workers that took place in three meatpacking plants in the Midwest in December, saying that these "dramatic, get-tough arrests" will not solve the immigration problem. Why not?
Archbishop Charles Chaput: The U.S. immigration problem is systemic. Attacking the symptoms-in this case, undocumented workers in a meatpacking plant-does nothing to address the root cause, which is economic.

Some 40 million abortions and billions of contraceptives later, Americans have a work-force shortfall. Why is anyone surprised?

We want a strong economy and a good standard of living, but we also don't want to do a lot of the unpleasant jobs that help sustain that standard. So we live with a curious kind of schizophrenia. We need the "illegals," but we also want to complain about them.

Z: You also said that the immigration system in the United States has failed. In what sense? Are there any laws on the table with the new Congress that would effectively address these issues?
ACC: San Antonio's Archbishop José Gómez and others have pointed out that today's Latino immigrants are different in some important ways from the Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants of a century ago.

Many Latino immigrants neither want nor plan to settle here. They want to work for a while and then return home, and unlike previous generations of immigrants, they could actually do that if our system let them, because they don't need to cross an ocean.

The U.S. immigration machinery has no effective way of welcoming, licensing and tracking guest workers, and yet we need enormous numbers of them. I'd call that a failure.

As to the politics of the issue, I've been equally dissatisfied by both major political parties. Colorado's Democratic senator, Ken Salazar, and Arizona's Republican senator, John McCain, and others, have pushed some good legislation at the federal level, but overall, both the Democrats and the Republicans have played to the uglier qualities in America's mood when it comes to immigration issues.

Z: The United States gives out about 1 million "green cards" a year, yet more than 800,000 undocumented workers arrive illegally each year. Would it be fair to assume that part of the problem also lies with the economic and political situation in the immigrants' home countries? What responsibility should these countries assume for the large numbers of citizens leaving their borders?
ACC: That's an important point. Some people enjoy blaming the United States for nearly every problem, and, unfortunately, American policy has had a very mixed history in Latin America.

But until Latin American nations seriously reform their own legal and economic systems, they are co-responsible for the current crisis. Just pointing fingers at the United States isn't going to work. One of the implications of a hemispheric economy is that both sides of the border need to cooperate. Both sides of the border have duties.

Z: The federal government is insisting on the need to control immigration for security reasons. The church, among others, has criticized some of the measures taken, such as the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, because of the human toll it takes. How can we reconcile the need for security with a more humane treatment for those trying to enter?
ACC: The church is most effective when she reminds people that punitive force alone can't work. For me, the debate over the border wall is really a debate over blunt-edged solutions.

The border wall is an icon for all sorts of other American contradictions. For example, we're trying to fight a war in Iraq with an obviously inadequate manpower pool, but Americans have no intention of making the sacrifices that would enlarge that pool in an equitable way.

Have you heard anyone seriously calling for conscription or mandatory national service, or vastly increasing military pay to encourage volunteers? I haven't. In a similar way, we want to "get tough" at the border, but are we really willing to militarize American life and spend the money it would take to shut down the immigrant flow? And what if we were? Have we really thought through the consequences for our economy?

At the same time, candidly, I don't think all religious voices are equally helpful in the national debate. Accusing Americans of national racism, or prematurely threatening civil disobedience to immigration law, is unwise.

Sometimes common sense is more useful than "prophetic witness." The security concerns most Americans feel very legitimate. Citizens have a right to be worried about disrespect for the law and the solvency of their public institutions.

If Americans are angry about the immigration issue, it's not because they're instinctively bigoted. They're frustrated and afraid, and too many of our public servants have failed us by not really leading with vision-in other words, by following their polls and ambitions, instead of their brains and consciences, to find a solution.

Z: You have said that the immigration crisis is a "test of our humanity." What measures could the government take to get control over the increasing numbers of undocumented workers in the country, but at the same time demonstrate this sense of humanity?
ACC: I know of many Catholic and other members of the U.S. Border Patrol who do their job with extraordinary humanity. At the people-to people level, Americans have always been among the most fair and generous in the world. We still are.

But the further away from practical human realities we get, the more inhumane our politics can become. It's not the job of the church to draft immigration law. If it were, we wouldn't need Congress.

Of course, that wouldn't work either, because the church doesn't have the particular skills needed for that kind of public service. Where the church and other communities of faith do have skill is in explaining the moral issues that should help shape the law. So her voice on an issue like immigration is vital.

Z: What has been the impact of immigration in your diocese?
ACC: Colorado saw a 70 percent increase in Hispanic immigration from the late 1980s through the late 1990s. Immigration is huge in my diocese, and on the balance, it's been a tremendous infusion of new life into the church.

In Denver, we want to build a church community that it is truly multiethnic and multiracial. That strikes me as a demand of discipleship.

But unless we get serious national immigration reform soon, a sense of grievance will continue to grow among both Hispanics and non-Hispanics. In the long run, that could gravely wound the whole country.


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