Immigrants and Nazis, Communists and Cardinals

I finally had a chance to read Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration. It’s rather different from the press portrayal. Maybe I’ll blog about that, but I want to start with the astonishingly vituperative attack by Cardinal Roger Mahony on what he calls “Arizona’s Dreadful Anti-Immigrant Law.” Here’s what he said on his blog:

I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation. Are children supposed to call 911 because one parent does not have proper papers? Are family members and neighbors now supposed to spy on one another, create total distrust across neighborhoods and communities, and report people because of suspicions based upon appearance?

Of course we all know the rule that the first debater to compare the other side to the Nazis is losing the debate. And this is a law that even President Obama, who obviously dislikes it, can’t say for sure goes beyond the state’s constitutional authority.  Plus, there’s nothing in the bill about children turning in parents or neighbors spying on neighbors.

Why is the Cardinal’s criticism so over the top?

Maybe he’s just really exercised about the issue. But even so, he can’t think that his flaming rhetoric is persuasive. Now, after reading the law, I suspect the Cardinal’s interest is a little closer to home.

A part of the law that hasn’t been emphasized by the media deals with the fact that Arizona has become the kidnapping capital of the country as coyotes transport and hold captive large numbers of illegal migrants. The law makes it illegal to “transport .. . conceal, harbor or shield an alien from detection in any place in this state, including any building or any means of transportation, if the person knows or recklessly disregards the fact that the alien has come to, has entered or remains in the United States in violation of law.” Similarly, the law makes it illegal to “encourage or induce” people to come to Arizona illegally.

That’s a pretty reasonable response to the crisis, you might think, which probably explains why it isn’t featured in media reports. But imagine that you’re the head of the Catholic church in Arizona. Sooner or later, a lot of your parishioners are going to tell their local priest that they’re here illegally. The church has been pretty clear about what it will do about that. Nothing. To take one recent example, a bishop in Oklahoma responded to that state’s effort to enforce immigration law with defiance:

“I wish to make it absolutely clear that no one will be denied access to our Catholic charitable, pastoral and/or educational programs because they are illegal immigrants. This is to be true for all our parishes, institutions, schools and the various operations of Catholic Charities.”

The problem with this stance is that it comes awfully close to declaring in advance that the church intends to “harbor or shield from detection” illegal immigrants. So Cardinal Mahony has to ask himself whether his priests are courting liability under the new law if they continue to give shelter and transport to parishioners whom they know or suspect are illegal immigrants.  (He can take some comfort from the fact that  federal law has long made harboring illegal aliens a federal offense without producing any serious liability, but federal law says that only ICE can bring such charges, and ICE has made clear, at least by its actions, that it has no intention of prosecuting church groups.  There’s also a bit of ambiguity in the Arizona law about whether you have to be committing a separate offense at the time of harboring, and that could make prosecutions of legitimate groups problematic.  But the risk of an investigation, and even a prosecution, at the hands of a fed-up local official, has surely gone up since the bill passed.)

That’s a big deal. Suddenly Cardinal Mahony’s outburst about the evils of spying and turning in parents makes a little more sense.  The law is going to put his church in a newly awkward position. Complying with Arizona’s tough new legal obligations will be hard to square with the bold moral stance taken by the church in a more forgiving era. The prospect of paying a much higher price for what had been a pretty comfortable form of civil disobedience is bound to engender a lot of emotion. And that, I suspect, is the source of the Cardinal’s otherwise inexplicable outburst.

(Updated:  Added material in parentheses in response to comments.)

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