CHICAGO (CNS) — The treatment of immigrants in the United States violates the biblical and ethical norms that God requires of his people, according to speakers at a Nov. 2 conference on the ethics of immigration held at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“An Ethical Perspective on the Accompaniment of Immigrants: A Faith Response” was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education, Catholic universities, religious communities and the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

The conference was set against a backdrop of roughly 400,000 deportations each year, at a time when fewer undocumented immigrants are crossing the border into the United States. What’s more, most deportees are not criminals, and their deportation causes massive suffering for their families and children, many of whom are U.S. citizens.


Jesuit Father William O’Neill, associate professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., offered the keynote talk, titled “And You Welcomed Me.”

Throughout salvation history, he said, God reminds the people of Israel that they are to “love the stranger and the migrant” because they once were exiles. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, born away from home, forced to flee, brought back out of Israel, mirroring the story of the Jewish people.

“To oppress the alien is no less than a betrayal of faith,” said O’Neill, who also serves as the Catholic chaplain at the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin, Calif., where many immigrant women are detained. “It is apostasy. Hospitality is the measure of righteousness and justice. … Hospitality is the very heart of Christian discipleship. It is not offered to kith and kind, but to those whose only quality is vulnerability and need.”

That doesn’t square with a system in which more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained rather than reunited with their families, he said.

Even children born in the United States to undocumented parents face steep odds, said Elena Quintana, executive director of the Adler Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice. Children who are themselves undocumented, but who were raised in the United States, face a severe narrowing of options as they move through high school and look beyond, finding that financial aid for college is all but unobtainable and that they will be limited jobs in the underground economy.

Their U.S.-born brothers and sisters are more likely to have a parent torn from the home and experience other family stresses, leading to increased levels of depression and anxiety throughout their lives.

Introducing a panel discussion on the current state affairs, Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and 8 million are in the workforce, while the U.S. immigration system allows only 120,000 work visas.

“You’ve had politicians and others say they should go back to their home countries and stand in line,” she said. “The reality is there is no line to stand in.

Richard C. Longworth, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said most undocumented immigrants are acting out of desperation, trying to provide for their families.

“Economic migration is an extremely moral act,” he said. “This is one of the most moral acts of all, to care for one’s family.”

He objected to the idea that undocumented immigrants are a drain on the United States, saying studies show they contribute both through paying taxes and increasing overall economic activity, and noted that surveys show the people who see the greatest threat from undocumented immigrants are those from areas where there aren’t many.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, a Republican elected official, once thought everyone without documents should just go home. But some friendly persuasion from faith leaders — including Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George — and others got him to take another look, he said, and his experience has led him to a change of heart.

As a former prosecutor and now a law enforcement officer, he said, he has always believed in the rule of law, but when he looked seriously at the immigration situation, he concluded that “rule” did not apply.

“We had open borders forever, because we had schizophrenic immigration policy,” he said. “We kind of lied to these people, said they could come in, get jobs, nobody’s going to ask any questions. And then we clamped down.”

Government policies have led undocumented immigrants to fear police and to avoid cooperating, even when they are victims or witnesses to crime, he said, which undermines community policing and makes the streets less safe for everyone.

Meanwhile, the lack of a rational immigration policy — one that would allow workers to come in with documentation — would boost national security by allowing law enforcement to know who is in the country.

But changing demographics in the U.S. give Curran optimism. “Immigration reform is a done deal, whether it happens now or five years from now,” he said, adding he hopes his party wakes up to the need to engage Latino voters on the issue.


Martin is a staff writer at the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese.