Proposed Mississippi Immigration Legislation Through the Lens of Catholic Social Teaching
by Sue Weishar, Ph.D.
It looks like legislators in Mississippi have not learned any lessons from the harmful and divisive fallout of immigration enforcement legislation enacted in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and other states. As of February 23, 2012, eight anti-immigrant bills have been filed in the Mississippi State Legislature for consideration in the 2012 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, which convened January 3 and will close on May 6. From a public policy standpoint these bills do not make good law or good sense. Three omnibus bills (HB 488, SB 2090, and SB 2284) will divert law enforcement entities from their core responsibilities-- to investigate and solve serious crimes. HB 488 and SB 2090 will also lead to violations of individuals’ liberty by requiring police to demand documents from anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” might be undocumented. All eight anti-immigrant bills 1, if enacted, will have a devastating economic impact on the state as immigrants (who are also consumers and tax payers) leave and businesses and farms which depend on their labor become unviable. When viewed through the lens of Catholic social teaching the impact of the proposed anti-immigrant laws on Mississippi families and communities comes most clearly into focus.
As Catholic scholar Donald Kerwin has noted, the Church does not have an immigration policy so much as it has a person policy2. A key foundation of Catholic social thought is that all human beings have great worth and dignity because all humans are made in the image and likeness of God. This insistence on the sanctity and immeasurable value of each human life requires the Church to oppose threats to human dignity such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, as well as laws that target vulnerable people and undermine their human dignity and human rights—rights derived from the God-given dignity and equality of each person. This commitment to upholding the human dignity of all persons was underscored in the Mississippi Bishops’ statement on immigration to the Mississippi State Legislature and Governor Bryant released January 21. Certain provisions of immigration laws under consideration in Mississippi have as their express purpose to “make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state agencies and local governments in Mississippi,” in other words, to make life so miserable for immigrants they will flee the state. As the Bishops rightly noted, “if a law violates human rights and human dignity, it cannot be considered a just law.”
Fundamental to a dignified life is clean water to drink and to bathe and gas or electricity to warm one’s home, to light the darkness, and to cook the family meal. HB 488 would make it a felony for undocumented immigrants to enter into or attempt to enter into a “business transaction” with the state or a political subdivision of the state of Mississippi. In Alabama this same provision was used to deny water and utilities to undocumented immigrants. HB 488 is an affront to the dignity of immigrants as well as a threat to public health.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of Alabama’s harsh anti-immigrant law, HB 56, was how it played politics with children’s lives by requiring schools to investigate the immigration status of enrolling students and their parents, resulting in thousands of children—many of them U.S. citizens—being withdrawn from school by terrified parents. Yet HB 488 aims to replicate the same painful and divisive provision. Mississippi legislators should take to heart the words of Alabama’s bishops: “Children should not be used, intentionally or not, as a means to intimidate their parents or other relatives. Our schools must be safe haven for children, and not battlegrounds in the struggle over immigration.”
The family holds a special place in Catholic social thinking, which recognizes the family as the basic unit of society. The Second Vatican Council defended and promoted the role of the family in Gaudium et Spes in 1965:
The well being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family. Hence Christians and all men who hold this community in high esteem sincerely rejoice in the various ways by which men today find help in fostering this community of love and perfecting its life, and by which spouses and parents are assisted in their lofty calling. Those who rejoice in such aids look for additional benefits from them and labor to bring them about. [no. 47]
The family is where children first encounter God, form their consciences, and learn moral virtues. The law enforcement provisions in the anti-immigrant legislation being proposed in Mississippi will lead to fathers and mothers being separated, perhaps forever, from their children and therefore pose grave harm to the sanctity of the family and the wellbeing of communities.
In Catholic social thought the common good is the total of all those conditions of social living—economic, political, sociological and cultural—which make it possible for women and men to fully achieve the perfection of their humanity. The Church teaches that the common good is realized through the virtue of solidarity—when we assume the plight of others as our own. Pope John Paul II taught: “This [solidarity] then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987). [no. 38]
A basic principle of Christian living is to uphold the common good and live in solidarity with others through charitable actions, as exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Shamefully, these basic Christian tenets may soon be outlawed for citizens of Mississippi who come to the aid of their undocumented sisters and brothers. SB 2090 and SB 2284 prohibit a person from taking his undocumented neighbor to the emergency room, church, or school. SB 2090 further outlaws actions that would “encourage or induce” an undocumented immigrant to live in Mississippi. Would performance of the sacraments be considered encouraging undocumented immigrants to live in Mississippi? Laws like SB 2090 and SB 2284 hinder the religious freedom of Mississippians by criminalizing charity and kindness to undocumented immigrants and possibly the performance of the sacraments at the heart of being church.
The immigration enforcement laws under consideration in Mississippi beg the following questions of people of faith: How deep is our commitment to our faith? Do we really believe that all persons are made in the image and likeness of God? Do we believe in the sanctity of the family? Does our salvation truly depend on how we treat the stranger in our midst (Matthew 25)? In the next weeks and months our actions, or lack thereof, will provide the answers to these important questions.
1. The eight bills filed as of February 23, 2012, include HB 488, an omnibus bill containing many provisions from Alabama’s HB 56; SB 2011, which would prevent unauthorized aliens from receiving financial aid from state universities and colleges; SB 2089, which requires retention of e-verify confirmations for at least three years; SB 2090, an omnibus bill modeled after Arizona’s immigration enforcement bill, SB 1070; SB 2228, which provides for conditional release of an offender to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; SB 2231, which requires applicants for public benefits file affidavits attesting to eligibility for federal benefits; SB 2232 which prohibits the establishment of “sanctuary cities”; and SB 2284 an omnibus bill that enhances penalties for using false documents, creates a new crime for transporting undocumented immigrants, and provides for cooperative law enforcement actions between local and state law enforcement on immigration matters.
2. See Donald Kerwin, “Rights, the Common Good, and Sovereignty in Service of the Human Person”, in And You Welcomed Me: Migration and Catholic Social Teaching, Donald Kerwin and Jill Marie Gerschutz, editors, (Lanham, Md,:Lexington Books, 2009), p. 93.