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May 11, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 17

"Using deportation as a back-stop for failed border control and bilateral economic policies evokes the maxim that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail." -Daniel Kanstroom

Immigration: What Next?

BC faculty follow the national debate, and offer their own views

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

Immigration battles like the one that has roiled America this spring are nothing new, says Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science), director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life: Similar debates occurred in 1965 and 1986.

But Congress never seems to get it right, explains Wolfe, thereby creating a cycle in which the immigration debate flares up every 20 years or so.

Wolfe said there is a 50-50 chance Congress will pass an immigration bill this time around, but he worries that it will be an unworkable compromise of liberal and conservative policies.

"The compromise that they're talking about gives a status to illegal immigrants depending on how long they've been here," Wolfe said. "But no one knows how long illegal immigrants have been here.

"I worry that Congress will just pass an unenforceable bill, an unrealistic bill, and we'll just have to come back to it 20 years from now."

Wolfe and other Boston College faculty are closely following the current immigration debate in the US - highlighted by demonstrations held on May 1 throughout the country by immigrants and immigration advocates - and the response of American Catholic bishops to the controversy.

Both Wolfe and his departmental colleague Prof. Peter Skerry published essays on immigration this month in The New Republic magazine.

Wolfe said the presence of American Catholic leaders, such as Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony - a voice for immigrant concerns - is vital to the debate.

"Among other things it reminds Americans who don't know Catholicism that on some issues the Catholic Church is more 'liberal' than it is on other issues. That's important," said Wolfe, who reviewed the book A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg in The New Republic.

"Here you have a classic case of religion being the conscience of a country and that's what religion should be."

Skerry took a more critical position regarding Catholic bishops' role in the immigration debate, calling their stance "totally unrealistic" and accusing them of having a "one-dimensional" view of morality.

"The only thing they [the bishops] seem to have in mind is their understanding of the welfare of immigrants," said Skerry. "They're oblivious to the fact that large numbers of Americans are clearly upset and anxious about our current immigration policy and the fact that we have so many immigrants here, both legal and illegal."

In his New Republic essay, which he co-authored with Devin Fernandes of the Urban Institute, Skerry said Americans' concern over immigration really boils down to fears over the transience and disorder that typically accompany mass migration.

"I worry that Congress will just pass an unenforceable bill, an unrealistic bill, and we'll just have to come back to it 20 years from now." -Alan Wolfe

Regardless of their roots, Skerry said immigration worries represent a political reality that must be addressed. To ignore such concerns risks sparking an overreaction - a clamp-down on immigration, perhaps.

"How is that going to benefit immigrants? The bishops are not facing up to this," he said.

Skerry also said it is important to remember that the Catholic Church is more than just a religious or moral leader when it weighs in on the issue of immigration: It is also a political actor.

"Historically, the Church in America has seen itself as the champion of its immigrant members, and it developed an array of institutions to address the needs of those immigrants and their offspring," he said.

"The self-interest of the Church in promoting liberal immigration policies should hardly surprise anyone," Skerry added. "But it is seldom mentioned when we talk about the politics of immigration policy."

That's not the only thing missing from the current debate over immigration, according to Clinical Prof. Daniel Kanstroom (Law).

"Amid the talk of how our nation of immigrants has lost control of its borders, nobody seems to be talking about the fact that we are in the midst of a massive deportation episode that is exceptionally harsh by virtually any historical or comparative measure," Kanstroom said.

More than 200,000 people face removal from the United States each year, while a million more leave through a rather involuntary procedure known as voluntary departure, he said. More than 40,000 others are removed on criminal grounds each year.

"Using deportation as a back-stop for failed border control and bilateral economic policies evokes the maxim that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Using it as a criminal penalty is unreasonably harsh and unfair in many cases," he said.

"As Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy once wrote: 'Only by zealously guarding the rights of the most humble...and the most despised among us can freedom flourish and endure in our land.'"

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