Saturday, February 25, 2017
With the Trump administration’s expansion of deportation efforts, there is increasing talk of churches stepping up to serve as “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants. With many Catholics suspecting that “the current policies of the administration toward immigrants and refugees is at odds with the clear command of the scriptures to welcome the vulnerable stranger,” Charles Camosy points out that it may become necessary for Catholic parishes to risk fines and prosecution by protecting those subject to deportation. As NPR reports (in a story featuring expert insight from our own Rick Garnett), this clash is already becoming a reality.
This re-emergence of the sanctuary movement raises an important but difficult question: When is it appropriate for the Catholic Church to defy the law? I believe that there may be circumstances over the next four years in which defiance is justified, even obligatory. But given the Church's support for the rule of law, those circumstances must be articulated with specificity, humility, and restraint.
The “sanctuary” label is thrown around loosely in our current debates. I’m not talking about material support for undocumented immigrants – that is, to me, a clear obligation for Christians that does not turn on one’s immigration status. That’s why past efforts to criminalize the provision of such support were roundly and rightly condemned by bishops.
I’m referring instead to the provision of shelter to undocumented immigrants for the express purpose of preventing their deportation. Churches have no legal authority to prevent deportation of someone who has sought sanctuary on church property (and never have, in the U.S. at least); any prevention power comes from the understandable reluctance of government agents to carry out enforcement actions on church property or from making it more difficult to find individuals subject to deportation by utilizing church-centered networks of concealment.
As fans of Victor Hugo know, European churches functioned as sanctuaries in a more formal, jurisdictional sense. In my understanding, though, entry into the church was not a permanent shield from the law, but simply a temporary respite during which time the church might intervene on the individual’s behalf or the individual was expected to choose whether to turn himself over to the temporal authorities or leave the country. It was not a blanket escape from the law’s reach.
More recently, American churches formed a network of sanctuaries in the 1980s for refugees seeking to escape Central America. This was not a categorical response to the Gospel’s call to welcome the stranger; this was a response to a particular problem: it was nearly impossible for these refugees to gain asylum status because the Reagan administration could not admit that their home countries were committing human rights abuses. Our law prohibited foreign aid to countries committing such abuses, and we were funding the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments. Instead of jeopardizing the aid, the Reagan administration classified the Central Americans as economic migrants. The churches that defied the law in the 1980s were targeting a particular injustice, not vindicating a more general commitment to welcome the stranger.
Faithful Catholics can reasonably disagree about the prudent contours of our immigration laws. The Church does not teach that all immigration laws – and the enforcement of such laws – are contrary to the moral order and should accordingly be defied as unjust. The Church does teach that the rule of law is important to human flourishing, and that the legitimacy of the political community’s duly elected leaders should be respected. As such, those instances when the Gospel supports – or even requires – defiance of the law should be spelled out with care. Perhaps the grounds for defiance are formed when the federal government would seek to deport a parent with dependent children, or to return an immigrant to a country where her life will be in danger, or to deport a person who arrived her as a child and knows no other home. Whatever the particulars, my only point is that the particulars matter. A categorical stance of defiance toward the enforcement of immigration laws strikes me as inconsistent with Church teaching.