By Declan Leary
Mr. Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University.
Though the politics of the USCCB are rather more complex than we are often led to believe, there is at least one issue on which the bishops’ conference is reliably (and disastrously) left-wing: immigration. Who can forget the image of El Paso’s Bishop Mark Seitz physically escorting a family of five Honduran nationals across the U.S. border and into his diocesan territory? The act was an explicit protest against the Trump administration, which had been working diligently to curtail endless waves of such illegal border crossings.
Of course, former President Trump, for whom border security was a key campaign issue in 2016, gave the bishops plenty such opportunities to object to conservative immigration policy (all of which they took). Now, with President Biden and congressional Democrats poised to pursue some of the most ambitious immigration programs ever considered by either party, the bishops stand ready to toe the line.
But they ought to pause and reconsider. Though well-intentioned, the bishops’ unflinching pro-immigration stance may well do more harm than good. For illustrations of this fact, we need only survey the situation, both at home and abroad, after years of porous borders made all the more so by progressive politicians and their episcopal activist allies. Who exactly is better off in 2021? Surely some people have benefitted marginally, like those who have laid down roots in the United States and achieved some small degree of financial stability. But the hidden costs merit careful consideration. There remains the distinct possibility that Bishop Seitz’s shepherding across the Rio Grande is not the act of charity and justice he suspects it to be.
The domestic costs incurred in the United States are all relatively well known, as they occupy the bulk of our debate over the issue. With a steady flow of eager workers with low standards—who also happen, because they exist effectively outside the U.S. legal framework, to be free of such burdens as the minimum wage—pay for labor is depressed, not to mention that work becomes increasingly difficult to find in the base economic strata of society. A massive population that is inordinately dependent on public aid places an immense strain on both our welfare state and our philanthropic networks. As alien populations arrive in increasing numbers, an already tenuous cultural consensus erodes more rapidly than ever, contributing to (though hardly causing) a dangerous social decline in the nation at large.
But these and the many other U.S. costs are—in the most literal sense of the phrase—first-world problems. America will muddle on in spite of them. Surely if these are the only relevant concerns, a moral case can be made that the humanitarian demands of the third world should outweigh the marginal prosperity and comfort of the first. Are the bishops right, then? Only if we ignore the other, far graver side of the crisis: the ongoing turmoil in the migrants’ nations of origin, which exodus after exodus and reform after reform has done far more to exacerbate than cure.
Case in point: On Monday, March 8, the Biden administration announced that it was extending temporary protected status (TPS) for 18 months to Venezuelan nationals currently in the U.S. without legal status. Predictably, the USCCB offered an enthusiastic endorsement on Thursday, with Bishop Mario Dorsonville, chair of the conference’s migration committee, and Bishop David Malloy, chair of the international justice and peace committee, “commend[ing] this just and humane decision by the Administration.” But “just and humane” is a bit of an overstatement; in fact, this is a blatant misuse of a (deliberately) open-ended policy provision that will only serve to prolong, and potentially deepen, an enduring international crisis.
TPS is designed to prevent the deportation of individuals in the short term to home nations that are experiencing grave and immediate crisis, defined as “ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war); an environmental disaster (such as earthquake or hurricane), or an epidemic; [or] other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” That last option—“other extraordinary and temporary conditions”—carries a heavy load in actual applications of temporary protected status.
By far, the largest group of people currently in the United States under TPS are citizens of El Salvador. The pretext for the extension of TPS to Salvadorans was a pair of severe, successive earthquakes in January and February—January and February of 2001, that is. Though the Trump administration attempted to terminate TPS for Salvadorans in 2019—“temporary” is right there in the name, after all—that attempt was blocked by a federal court. Last week marked twenty years of temporary protected status for Salvadorans, more than 263,280 of whom make use of the protection.
The United States has not collapsed under their weight, nor would it under the continued weight of undocumented Venezuelans. But this is answering the wrong question. Is El Salvador any better off thanks to U.S. abuse of the TPS provision? By the same token, will Venezuela (and Venezuelans) benefit in the long run from the similar extension of TPS to Venezuelan nationals? If the answer to this question is no, then there can be no moral case for the measure, given that it actually harms the people it purports to help.
And make no mistake, the answer is no. TPS, properly applied, is a valuable provision: in the short term, it provides foreign nationals already in the U.S. with a needed safe haven while return to their home nation is untenable due to factors entirely beyond their control. But when TPS becomes a permanent solution, the consequences are disastrous for one simple reason: El Salvador suffers when a quarter of a million citizens, largely healthy and able-bodied, are drained from its population in the long term. A permanent exodus may improve the individual lots of those who were lucky enough to be in the U.S. when TPS was declared, but it does significant damage to the common good in the original nation.
The same is true of Venezuela, where a brutal regime and a crumbling economy have found the once-prosperous country mired in crisis for the better part of a decade. This is not an earthquake, with a clear moment of danger to be avoided and a limited period of rebuilding to be carried out by capable authorities. This is a social crisis, in which a population drain can only worsen. Every solution that Venezuela desperately needs, from rebuilding an economy based on abundant natural resources to ousting the dictatorship that caused it to collapse, requires strong human capital with an intimate connection to the country and a vested interest in its future. The system TPS enables, whereby Venezuelans in the U.S. remain here to contribute their labor to the American economy while sending their wages back home, props up the moribund Venezuelan system through cash injections without actually contributing to the common good in the way that an integral, localized system of labor, production, and living would.
One key reason why Catholic social thought places such a high premium on rootedness in place is that abandonment of this principle—whether in pursuit of riches on some frontier or merely a more livable existence in another country—necessarily breeds instability. That polity is inevitably stronger which encourages its people to settle and build. To either drain away another nation’s population or to drive your own population into another nation does significant damage to both. But far more damage is done to the nation losing its people.
Why, then, do the bishops continue to encourage such exodus? Perhaps it is purely pragmatic: they do not see it in their power to stem the flow of migrants across the border, so they see it as their duty to minister to the inevitable arrivals. But one senses that the bishops are a bit too eager to encourage Latin Americans to leave their homes in search of modestly paid labor in the United States. It seems likely that American bishops, especially those in border dioceses like El Paso, welcome the migrant flock simply because they are a flock to welcome—that as the domestic Church hemorrhages its members, injections of faithful, vibrant Catholic populations offer an opportunity for much-needed renewal. Their behavior suggests a general assumption that new populations will provide a stopgap solution without forcing a reckoning on any of the actual issues in the U.S. ecclesial establishment.
And maybe they’re right. Maybe migrant arrivals really will revive the ailing American Church. Maybe in the best-case scenario an inevitable political-economic decline is at least accompanied by a spiritual renaissance. But I find it infinitely more likely that these migrant populations will be—more or less, sooner or later—absorbed into the larger American Church, and will thereby absorb all its apathy and decadence, its lukewarm complacency in a social order that poses no problems for just getting by and offers no encouragement for seeking anything more. Will the men and women who were drawn away from struggling Catholic countries be better off here? Their bodies may be, but it’s doubtful that their souls will share the benefits.
And what of the countries they’ll have left behind? In a Houellebecqian phrase made famous in the year of COVID-19: they’ll be the same, but worse. If immigration from the south continues at the pace that Biden and the USCCB would prefer, already dwindling economies in Latin America will collapse, cratering populations breaking the camel’s back. Repressive regimes like Nicolás Maduro’s will tighten their grip on a further weakened citizenry. And the great churches of a once-faithful continent will find their pews as empty as our own, their former inhabitants now wage laborers in the secular, rootless mass society to their north. How hollow will all our talk of justice seem then?