Immigration law should not be punitive


Father Greg Steckel, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty, hoped that the small town’s new police chief could attend an immigration information meeting scheduled March 12 at the parish. But many Hispanics, who comprise 52 percent of the town’s 3,733 residents, fear that proposed state legislation and President Trump’s promise to get tough on undocumented immigrants would force local law officers to arrest undocumented residents and tear families apart. The police chief won’t appear in person. His message will be videotaped for the March 12 meeting that begins at 1:30 p.m. in the church hall. The fact that many, if not most, of the residents of a community fear the people paid to protect them should alarm us all.

Thirty miles south of West Liberty is Columbus Junction, where Hispanics represent 48 percent of the population (a majority) in the town of 1,857 people. Father Joseph Sia, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Columbus Junction, detects a sense of resignation among Hispanic immigrants. “They’ve been exposed to the threat of being deported for a very long time,” he said. Concern has heightened in the wake of President Trump’s immigration enforcement plan, which includes hiring 15,000 new border patrol and immigration enforcement agents, building detention centers and deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. An immigration information meeting is scheduled for March 12 at noon at St. Joseph’s in Columbus Junction. Anyone interested in immigration issues may attend the Columbus Junction or West Liberty meetings.

The Iowa Catholic Conference is doing what it can to oppose legislation that would authorize state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Iowa legislators, however, are taking a full-steam-ahead approach to enforcement. Three bills cleared a self-imposed deadline to remain alive this session. Each one takes a decidedly punitive approach to enforcement of immigration law.

• House File 265 prohibits the state, counties, cities and certain post-secondary educational institutions from limiting or restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws.


• Senate File 412 requires the use of the e-verify employment verification program by businesses that hold a state license and have at least 10 full-time employees. This bill prohibits employers from knowingly employing “unauthorized aliens” and requires repayment of economic incentives by employers who do not comply.

• Senate Study Bill 1172 requires local law enforcement to fulfill all detainer requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). State funds would be denied to violators.The bill applies specifically to cities, counties, campus police, and entities under their jurisdiction. It appears to be aimed at discouraging sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. No city in Iowa is formally recognized as a sanctuary city, according to the Des Moines Register (Feb. 26), but Iowa City officials have agreed to limit that city’s involvement in enforcing immigration law. Also of concern in this bill: it doesn’t provide true safeguards against racial profiling.

Our Catholic leaders recognize and accept the need for secure borders in our nation. Fr. Sia said that the ministerial association of which he is a member in Columbus Junction has agreed to honor legitimate arrest warrants for named, undocumented individuals. Traditionally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers don’t enter churches to make arrests. But they have the right to do so. Fr. Sia, echoing Iowa’s bishops and the U.S. bishops, believes the focus should be on legislation that provides a pathway to legal status for undocumented residents.

A reader of The Catholic Messenger pointed out that “Catholic moral teaching asks us to welcome immigrants and requires immigrants to respect our laws.” The president has every right to enforce the law and deport “criminal aliens,” the reader said.

How many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are “criminal aliens?” What happens to factory production and agricultural labor following raids that claim undocumented workers and their family members who may be legal residents? Why are we spending so much time, effort and expense to take punitive action instead of proactive measures to address illegal immigration?
In 2013, as Congress was considering reform of our country’s broken immigration system, the Iowa bishops published a thoughtful statement on this issue. In part, the bishops said, “While Catholics may disagree within the limits of justice on the specific approach to reforming the immigration system, we must agree as a people of faith to live out the scriptural commandment to ‘welcome the stranger’ and defend the God-given dignity of every person.”

If we want America to be great, we need to work constructively toward a compassionate, not a punitive, resolution of this problem at the federal level.

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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