Cultures change, but fear of immigrants continues unabated

A friend the other day handed me a document called “Conozca Sus Derechos” (“Know Your Rights”). It was distributed recently in Hispanic parishes in a diocese not far from Philadelphia. The goal was to help immigrants understand their rights and to protect themselves from ICE officers and other officials, newly emboldened by recent instructions from the Trump administration.

The issue of illegal immigration in the United States is a complicated one. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has many resources on this issue, and they are doing great work on behalf of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. The fact is that this really isn’t an “issue” at all: it is about people, men and women who by and large work hard and want nothing more than a peaceful life. Did many enter the United States illegally? Absolutely, and every country has a right to defend its borders. But the fact is that for 20 years, the United States just wasn’t doing that. In the meantime, federal and state governments winked while businesses brazenly hired undocumented workers. Let’s not forget that the immigrants aren’t the only ones who have broken laws here: many businesses leaders should be ashamed for undercutting workers and paying an unjust wage to illegal immigrants. And while Republicans have been blamed – at times quite justly – for stonewalling on comprehensive immigration reform, let us recall that the most promising effort of the last decade at a compromise took place with the explicit support of a Republican president. (And 10 Democrats voted against cloture on that bill, BTW.)

At this point, the real question isn’t “what do we do about illegal immigration,” but “why on earth do these people still want to stay here?” In the last ten years, immigrants – especially Hispanic, but in a different way, Middle Eastern – have played the part of political football between the two great parties. Let’s face it: Donald Trump might never have achieved the popularity he did during the primaries if he hadn’t promised to “build that wall” and deport “bad hombres.”

To be fair, none of this began with President Trump. Throughout our history, disparagement of immigrants has rivaled baseball as the American pastime. That great bon vivant Benjamin Franklin had not so kind words to say about German immigrants in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Know Nothing candidates turned their hatred of Catholic immigrants into a semi-mainstream political force (admittedly, still preferable to their other tactic: burning churches).

Obviously, a sovereign nation has the right and indeed the obligation to ensure that those who enter the country do so for legitimate reasons and are taught to live in accordance with the mores of that culture. In fact, despite a history of immigrant hostility, America has been quite good at allowing incoming peoples to adapt to American ways of life while also allowing immigrants’ home cultures to flourish. As Archbishop Chaput notes in Strangers in a Strange Land, Catholic immigrant families did accept American culture quite easily. In fact, perhaps a bit too easily:

“The reason the Christian faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young people is that—too often—it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to suffer for it. As Catholic Christians, we may have come to a point today where we feel like foreigners in our own country—“strangers in a strange land,” in the beautiful English of the King James Bible (Ex 2:22). But the deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are “foreigners.” It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.

            The USCCB has stated many times quite correctly that immigration policies which cruelly separate families when persons pose no significant threat to public safety is disastrously wrongheaded. Any act of deportation should be carried on solely with respect for families, considering a person’s due process, and without any of the disgusting rhetoric which was used during the presidential campaign.

But there is another issue here from the Church’s perspective: Hispanic Catholics who are here in the United States are trending away from religious faith more precipitously than other immigrant groups of the past, such as the Italians, Irish, and Polish. I doubt highly if this is because the faith of Mexicans and Guatemalans is somehow less vibrant than that of Europeans. Rather, I think it is a reflection of the hedonistic, utilitarian, sophomoric mess that today passes for American culture. The old Catholic immigrant groups came and assimilated into a generally virtuous culture (and went along for the ride while it fell apart). The new immigrant groups are arriving into a country already in the midst of deep cultural decline. This has just sped up the process of declining religious practice and rapid secularization among these communities.

I cannot help but think that all of these issues are connected. The anxiety felt by many about Latino migration probably stems from a recognition that the United States is a cultural vacuum right now. This is what is happening in Europe as well: after decades of negative birth rates and laissez faire morality, Muslim immigrants bringing a rigid moral code and high birth rates are filling the vacuum and transforming a continent. This uneasiness breeds anger at immigrants; the relativistic culture negatively impacts the values of those same immigrants.

This Lent, I think the best thing we can do is pray for our brothers and sisters who are living in fear as a result of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. But more than that, we must examine how our obsession with consumerism and relativism can only lead to further moral decay. Without a virtuous citizenry, democratic capitalism becomes a dangerous false god. We need to be welcoming, of course. But we also have to ask ourselves whether what we’ve got right now is worth crossing a desert to enter.