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Where did the storm over immigration come from? In conversations with folks who are in the thick of the battle, I am struck that everybody seems rather taken by surprise. A year ago, they say, they knew the issue was there, along with many other issues, but nobody anticipated that it would become the politically dominant question that it is today.

I have no idea whether there will be an immigration bill this session, but it now seems very doubtful. Almost certainly the multifaceted "comprehensive" bill favored by the White House and much of the Senate will not be passed. But I leave those matters to the political experts.

What is truly striking is the rapidity with which the public debate over immigration policy—or lack of policy—seems to be changing. At the big EWTN bash down in Philadelphia last weekend, I was asked, "What would Christ do about illegal immigrants?" This is a variation of the WWJD question that was ubiquitous a few seasons go. Anyone who asks what Jesus would do if he were president of the United States or a United States senator has a very big problem with Christology. (I should add that it was obvious that most of the four thousand or so people in Philadelphia were unhappy with what they viewed as the Catholic bishops’ compassion-only approach to immigration.)

With respect to politics and everything else, the better framing of the question is, What would Christ have us do? I am not at all sure. In terms of what’s good for the American economy, I am impressed by the arguments of the Wall Street Journal and many economists that a more or less open immigration policy is, all in all, an economic plus. The Catholic bishops are also undoubtedly right in their insistence upon compassion for the twelve million or more illegal immigrants already here, and it does not detract from the moral integrity of their position that the great majority of immigrants from the South are Catholics, and therefore immigration is seen as benefiting the Church.

At the same time, as Mary Ann Glendon notes in the current First Things , there is in the bishops’ statements a conspicuous lack of concern for obedience to the law. Law and order does not guarantee justice, but there can be no justice without law and order. I expect that most Americans are not sure precisely what should be done about immigration but are appalled by the specter of lawlessness. What they perceive is a non-policy for immigration that is wildly out of control, and they have slight confidence that the people who framed the laws now so widely violated with impunity can be trusted to bring the situation under legal control.

The old Immigration and Naturalization Service is now part of the Department of Homeland Security and is called the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Incompetence by any other name is incompetence, and horror stories abound from people who have tried for years to play by the immigration rules. The snarled muddle of laws and regulations for getting into the country legally is manifestly not working, which gives people little confidence in the complexity of new procedures proposed by the White House and Senate. Meanwhile, there is the prospect of millions of more illegals pouring across the southern border.

The political elites seem to be indifferent to the disruption of communities resulting from unbounded illegal immigration. I expect that is in large part because they don’t live in those communities. On the upper West and East sides of Manhattan, the illegals who live in the outer boroughs but come into Manhattan to work are a convenient servant class. Moreover, as Joseph Bottum has noted in this space, elite sympathy for illegals is reinforced by their both sharing an adversarial relationship to American society. For the elites, that relationship is ideological. For the immigrants, it derives from the fact that, no matter how much they may admire the opportunities on offer in America, they are, to put it simply, outlaws.

The other night, PBS showed a compelling documentary of brothers from a Mexican village who were determined to go north. One of the brothers died in the desert of Nevada, and there was powerfully affecting footage of his mourning family back in Mexico. The film said that more than three thousand people had died trying to enter the United States from Mexico illegally in the past decade since United States authorities started getting tougher on border control, thus forcing illegals to attempt riskier routes through the desert. The invited inference is that the United States should let up on enforcement, making it easier for illegals to enter the country. Or maybe the border, along with immigration laws, should be abolished altogether, letting additional millions enter the country legally. And why should only Mexicans and Central Americans have a right to unlimited entry?

One measure of America’s success as a society is similar to measuring the success of a Broadway play: People are lined up around the block trying to get in. In this case, however, they’re lined up around the world. I expect that, had they the opportunity, at least a billion people in the world would emigrate to the United States as rapidly as they could. Of course, long before we reached that number, America would stop being a successful society. Some might observe that, at that point, the immigration problem would solve itself, since people would not be attracted to a society in ruins. It is a solution that is not likely to win the support of many Americans.

In First Things , I have been critically appreciative of the urgings of Samuel Huntington ( Who Are We? ) and others who contend that at stake is whether the United States will remain a sovereign nation in legal and cultural continuity with its history. Such arguments may be overblown, but they cannot be dismissed as nativist or lacking in moral seriousness. Anyone who thinks a devotion to nation and peoplehood is incompatible with Catholic social doctrine should spend some time with John Paul II’s last published book, Memory and Identity .

Again, I don’t know what specific policies should be adopted. The choice should certainly not be between enforcement-only, on the one hand, and virtual amnesty that encourages yet more illegal immigration, on the other. But the hotting up of the immigration debate is turning my long-standing hunch into a deepening conviction that no immigration reform will be possible until Americans believe that the lawlessness of the past decade and more has been brought under a reasonable approximation of legal control.

In addition to which :

Father Richard John Neuhaus ventures into the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, July 5, for a talk and book signing at Barnes & Noble. That is at 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street, beginning at 7pm. The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . He says he would be pleased to see you there. For information, call 212 362-8835.

In the June/July issue of First Things , Jason Byassee, assistant editor of Christian Century, examines the sad story told by his former teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church. Byassee writes: “For those younger than Taylor, it seems apparent that for any interesting rebellion we have to leave the deconstructive work and reembrace historic Christian doctrine and practice. I’m glad Taylor helped teach me what a joy that embrace can be—before she herself left the Church.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

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