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Illegal and Not Just Undocumented

Most talk about the flood of illegal immigrants to the United States centers on the consequences of acting or not acting to turn things around. Those who wish for tighter borders point out the expensive strain on social services, the loss of entry-level jobs to foreigners, and the demise of the melting-pot tradition, replaced by bilingual insularity. Those who applaud the influx say the aliens are essential to the continued health of the U.S. economy, for they “do jobs that Americans won’t do” and supply cheap labor, keeping prices low. This is “utilitarian” or “teleological” thinking, where the end ultimately justifies the means.

Some utilitarians find common cause on immigration with “situationalists,” who espouse a “love ethic,” whereby those in need should be helped at all costs, and with ethical “hierarchicalists,” who say the law is important, but higher concerns trump it. And, of course, there are the cultural and political relativists who fixate on the polls, dismiss suggestions that core values and social integrity are crucial to a nation, and charge their opponents with chauvinism and even racism.

Of course, everyone cares for a robust economy and the alleviation of suffering, but somewhere in the shuffle, respect for the law, prescribed in Romans 13:1, has been lost. Certainly, laws can be changed, but until they are, they should be respected. And certainly the Church should show compassion for those immigrants they find on their doorstep.1 It will not do to substitute “undocumented” for “illegal,” as if it were simply a matter of bungled paperwork; illegal is illegal. Nevertheless, this is a difficult standard to maintain when the law is demeaned, defied, diluted, under-enforced, and simply ignored in so many sectors:

In Congress, whose Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 “created amnesties that allowed nearly 3 million former illegal aliens . . . to acquire legal residence . . . No mechanism was ever created to enforce the law [against employing illegal aliens], and so it eventually became a meaningless prohibition.”2

In the courts, the nation has bent over backwards to accommodate even criminal immigrants, such as in the 2001 case, INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289. Though two 1996 immigration acts3 had removed the possibility of deportation waivers for felons, the Supreme Court ruled, with strong dissent from Justice Scalia, that since St. Cyr’s drug dealing had occurred before 1996, his automatic deportation after 1996 was unconstitutional.4 In a 2012 case, the Supreme Court struck down three parts of an Arizona immigration law, though it let stand a provision requiring police to check the immigration papers of anyone they stop if they suspect the person is an illegal immigrant.5

In the business world and the local law enforcement community: In a February 2006 article, the News & Observer reports, “In North Carolina, not a single business has been fined for hiring illegal immigrants since 1999.” As immigration official Tom O’Connell explains, “I can’t arrest every truck full of painters going to some job in Apex.” He adds, “We don't have the resources.”6

In foreign governments, notably Mexico, illegal immigration is facilitated, if not openly encouraged. Their official Guide for the Mexican Immigrant provides such counsel as this: “Crossing the river can be very risky, especially if you cross alone and at night. Thick clothing increases your weight when wet and makes it hard to swim or float.”7

Surely, it is time for the Church to speak up for the law, but even there the message is mixed: Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony has said that if Congress makes it a crime to hide illegal aliens, his priests and parishioners should ignore the law.8

So who will speak for the law? God has done so already, but that was two thousand years ago through the Apostle Paul. The question remains, who will echo and honor that teaching today?


See also Kairos Journal article, "Ministering to Illegal Immigrants."


Roberto Suro, Strangers among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 22.


The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA).


INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289 (2001), Cornell Law School: Supreme Court Decisions Website, (accessed June 29, 2006).


Arizona et al., v. United States, 567 U.S. ____ (2012), U.S. Supreme Court Website, (accessed June 27, 2012). See also Julia Preston, “Immigration Ruling Leaves Issues Unresolved,” New York Times, June 26, 2012, (accessed June 27, 2012).


Karen Rives, “Jobs Lure Illegal Immigrants to the State,” The News & Observer, February, 26, 2006, (accessed June 29, 2006). Given this paucity of federal enforcement, it is not surprising that Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix) has become a celebrity as the state’s only sheriff to round up illegals on his own. See “Sheriff to Start Posse Patrols to Curb Illegal Immigration Flow,” CBS-5 News Website, May 2, 2006, (accessed June 29, 2006).


See a translation of this booklet reproduced at For the Spanish original, see “Guía Del Migrante Mexicano,” Secretaría de Relaciones Exteríores, (accessed June 29, 2006).


Jennifer Ordoňez, “The Catholics: A Cardinal’s Campaign,” Newsweek, April 17, 2006, 38, (accessed June 29, 2006).