Gingrich & Immigration

by Michael Sean Winters

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Could his conversion have really taken hold? This was the question I asked myself during last week’s GOP debate when presidential aspirant for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued for a more humane immigration policy. Specifically, Gingrich said that it was important to draw distinctions between those undocumented workers (he called them illegals) who have newly arrived, have no roots or significant community ties, and should be deported and those undocumented workers who have been here for twenty-five years, belong to a church, have children and even grandchildren here, and who should be given a path to legalize their status.

Challenging political orthodoxies is almost always a good thing. It is also usually a rare thing, especially in a primary. After all, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended his state’s version of the DREAM Act, and said those who didn’t were heartless, his poll numbers began to tank. Perry’s willingness to challenge the anti-immigrant orthodoxy of the GOP base was contemporaneous with a series of dreadful debate performances, so it is unclear how much his more moderate immigration stance caused his fall. Similarly, Gingrich has benefited from the fact that his call for a more humane approach to the issue came just before the Thanksgiving holiday and the far juicier claim by an Atlanta woman that she had a long-term affair with Herman Cain.

No interviewer has, so far as I know, asked Gingrich the one question I should like to see him answer: In what ways has your conversion to Catholicism, with its rich tradition of teaching on social justice issues, changed your approach or your stance on any given issue? I am hoping that immigration would be a part of his answer. After all, the Church, often characterized as a shill for the GOP, has been quite clear and quite forceful on the issue of immigration. The Church does not call our immigrant brothers and sisters “illegals.” We call them human beings and, oftentimes, co-religionists. The stance of the Church is hardly some leftie, European-inspired, socialist approach, which is how Republicans usually describe social justice concerns. The Church’s stance is rooted in the Book of Deuteronomy: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The Church’s teaching has been re-affirmed by the American bishops and by the Holy Father, and that teaching has been lived out through our various ministries. Was it now to be the source of a humanizing of the GOP’s anti-immigrant stance?

Alas, perhaps the former Speaker and I employ the word differently, but his proposals are far short of humane. In a defense of Gingrich, William Bennett noted this about Gingrich’s proposals:

Gingrich's immigration plan would only grant legality, not full citizenship, to anyone who has entered the country illegally should they meet stringent requirements.
Anyone with a criminal record would be ineligible and subject to deportation, as well as those who entered the country recently and have no commercial or family ties to the United States.

Only those who can sustain themselves without government assistance (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) and pay for their own private health insurance would be eligible to stay. An independent, local "citizen's review" board would grant legal status based on the requirements above as well as the immigrant's standing in his or her community. Should they be permitted to stay, they will still be subject to a $5,000 penalty.

America’s last experiment with second class citizenship, Jim Crow, was nothing to brag about. It is difficult to see how allowing millions of undocumented workers to stay here with no promise of citizenship corresponds to any conservative, still less Catholic, idea about our human rights being given to us humans qua humans, not by government but by the Creator. Did God mess up and fail to give those rights to Latinos born on the other side of the border or to Cambodians foolish enough to be born in Cambodia? If not, how can government now take away their right to participate in their society? And, why should immigrants not receive benefits from Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security? These government programs correspond to real human needs and, in many cases, immigrants have paid into those programs as well. And, anyone who has read or seen “The Crucible” will think twice before endorsing the idea of a “citizens’ review” board.

I would love nothing better than to call for three cheers for Mr. Gingrich for trying to turn his party away from its hostility to immigrants. But, when you look at the actual content of his proposals, I can only muster one cheer. Turning a political party in a more humane direction, and standing up to the base, always merit one cheer. (And it would be nice if some conservative commentators acknowledged the degree to which President Obama stood up to his base on the issue of abortion funding under the Affordable Care Act.) But, if Gingrich is to be taken seriously, he must explain how his claims about the divine origin of the rights acknowledged in the Declaration and Constitution cohere with a policy that denies some human beings those same rights.

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