Prisons and immigration

Do we want to practice empathy and hospitality or build prisons? 

By Guest Blogger Michael J. Sanem

National Public Radio Investigation revealed on Thursday that the controversial Arizona Immigration Bill, which requires police to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally, was written, nearly word for word, by a small group of legislators and private prison corporations, all of whom would financially benefit from a dramatic increase in the imprisonment of immigrants.

The Corrections Corporation of America, a private for-profit prison company that runs many detention centers in the United States, not only donated to the campaigns of the 30 of 36 legislators who co-sponsored the bill, but also helped draft a model bill for the co-sponsors, while at the same time scouting locations to build new prisons. 

In terms of legality, what we have here is simply a "public-private partnership," where a private company encourages legislation that helps its bottom line. According to the Corrections Corporation of America, detention of immigrants, men, women, and children, is an "emerging" market. Morally, this is a clear and compelling case of structural injustice, one in which laws are passed for the benefit of a few while families are torn apart, detained, and dehumanized.

Laws provide the basis for safety, security, and normality in society. They are created and enforced for the benefit of everybody. Certainly, the laws that keep violent people detained or out of the country should be enforced, and we should respect those who risk their lives to enforce them. However, as the troubled 20th century indicates, laws which exploit, degrade, and dehumanize people are to be questioned, challenged, and resisted. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been praiseworthy in their swift denouncement of the Arizona legislation, and Pope Benedict XVI has consistently advocated for the rights of migrants, as the right to emigrate is considered a human right in Catholic Social Teaching. Moreover, there is a welcome interfaith consensus among the Abrahamic traditions, as both Islam and Judaism teach hospitality, mercy, and compassion be extended to the immigrant seeking a better life. 

However, in the United States, legislators on both sides of the aisle have danced around comprehensive immigration reform which would provide a practical pathway to citizenship, a secure border, and humane treatment of those who have come to America seeking a better life. Although tea party activists played a major role in drafting and supporting the Arizona legislation, past Republican administrations have been commendable in their amnesty efforts, and while President Obama speaks eloquently of the rights of migrants, he has dramatically increased the number of deportations. 

In the vast majority of cases, the "illegal" immigrant's crime is fleeing violence and poverty for the sake of survival, not audaciously breaking the law. From a position of privilege, it's easy to point to security and freedom to justify an inhumane piece of legislation, and it's just as easy for most moderates to remain indifferent in the face of exploitation. And apparently, with enough money it's fairly easy to pass legislation that lines the pockets of the rich and unjustly imprisons the poor and vulnerable. 

What is difficult is empathy, actually considering the plight of those deported, detained, and dehumanized for seeking the very same thing our ancestors sought. What is difficult is risking compassion and activism in the face of misinformation, unjust legislation, and abounding human sinfulness. And what is categorically impossible is serving Christ present "in the least of my brothers and sisters" and the demands of the almighty dollar and its legislative power at the same time: "You will either hate the one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matt. 6:24). 

Illumined by the gospel call, the stark reality in which the immigrant in our country is exploited by the rich and disregarded by the powerful comes into tragic focus. Legally, the privileged grandchildren of immigrants can exploit and demonize them, and legislatively, we as citizens can ignore and disregard them. But spiritually, if we truly obey a higher authority, we are bound by more than mere legality to stand with them.

Guest blogger Michael J. Sanem is a young adult pursuing his master's degree at Catholic Theological Union. He mentors youth through CTU's Peacebuilders Initiative, and he also blogs at Where there is despair.


Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.