Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

On Monday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-3 vote, overturned three of the four major provisions of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law (“SB 1070”). These three provisions, according to the court’s majority opinion, either went beyond federal immigration policy or interfered with the federal government’s discretionary enforcement of those policies. The court did, however, uphold the section of the law which requires state and local police officers to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement if there is a reasonable suspicion that a person stopped for another offense is in the country illegally, but interpreted this provision narrowly, suggesting that holding a person for an unreasonable amount of time during an immigration check or detaining someone merely to check their immigration status could successfully be challenged in court. The court also left open the possibility that, once in force, the law could be challenged for racial profiling.

Later that day the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put out a news release praising the decision, yet raising concerns about the provision left in place. The bishops had earlier filed an amicus curiae brief for the case. The bishops’ opposition to Arizona’s immigration law, and other similar state laws, is consistent with their long-standing support for comprehensive immigration reform. The bishops have outlined their teaching on immigration in their pastoral letter Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, co-written with the Catholic bishops of Mexico, and have lobbied Congress for years on the issue.

Although the bishops have been effective advocates for immigration reform, they have not been nearly as effective at convincing their fellow Catholics of the wisdom of this teaching. A Zogby poll in 2009 showed that seventy-eight percent of Catholics believe that the primary cause of illegal immigration is a lack of enforcement, rather than the inadequacy of U.S. immigration policy. Similarly, sixty-four percent of Catholics believed that illegal immigrants should be deported, as opposed to only twenty-three percent who believed there should be some process of legalization. The study also showed that sixty-nine percent of Catholics believe that current legal immigration rates are too high and should be reduced.

Certainly more could be done to publicize the bishops’ teachings, but I believe that the deeper reasons for the lack of reception of Catholic teaching on immigration are illuminated by two core principles of Catholic teaching: the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable and solidarity. Going beyond press releases and bulletin inserts, the church needs to engage in practices that will form its members to more actively embody these principles.

As a result of original sin, we have an innate tendency to achieve otherwise praiseworthy goals at the expense of those least able of standing up for themselves. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable counteracts this tendency by putting our focus on “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Some Catholics critical of the bishops’ position refer to the right of nations to control their borders, which is part of Catholic teaching, to justify more restrictive immigration policies, but this defines the “common good” too narrowly and puts the needs of relatively well-off Americans ahead of those of people who are more vulnerable. As the U.S. bishops write in Strangers No Longer, “While the sovereign state may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated. In the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant, the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible” (#39). Critics argue that immigrants take jobs from American workers and add strain to social services, yet is it really just to blame the least well-off for our inability to provide adequate jobs and social services to those who need them? Other solutions appear invisible to us because they require the powerful, rather than the weak, to make sacrifices. The church must help make real alternatives visible.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the justifications for Arizona’s law. Arizonans claim that their border with Mexico has become lawless as a result of the intermingling of drug cartels and other criminal groups with illegal immigration, and that draconian immigration laws can combat this. In the process, though, the vast majority of illegal immigrants, who have nothing to do with drug trafficking, are transformed into a mortal threat. A saner policy would be to provide greater opportunities for legal immigration so that law enforcement could focus on real criminals rather than families seeking a better life.

Catholic social teaching also calls on us to embody solidarity. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II defines solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (#38). Solidarity means putting ourselves in the place of the other. Defenders of more restrictive immigration define the “common good” narrowly in terms of the good of American citizens, yet solidarity calls us to expand our horizons to include those beyond our borders. This means coming to understand the struggles faced by those who choose to illegal immigrate. We do have special responsibilities to our fellow citizens, but not at the expense of more basic rights for our fellow human beings. The Arizona law and similar laws also show a lack of solidarity with Hispanics. The idea that Hispanics will “have to endure some inconvenience” that others do not, based solely on their ethnicity, must be challenged.

Because our tendencies to exploit the vulnerable and to look out for “our own” at the expense of others are deep-seated, the Catholic Church must be creative in developing ways to effectively communicate its teaching on immigration. For example, in one of my classes, and more recently in our archdiocese’s diaconate formation program, I divide the room into two spaces, one representing the United States, the other the rest of the world. I assign participants a national origin and background story, and then have them apply for entry to the United States. Some are granted visas and others are not, based on current U.S. policy. Each is also given a “savings account” that diminishes over time, unless they reach the United States. Those who are denied visas or whose savings account runs out before their visa is granted are given the option to enter the U.S. illegally. By the end of the session, every single person is in the space representing the United States, even though only roughly half were granted visas. Without telling anyone what to believe, this simulation helps participants overcome Americans’ fetishization of the law and realize that immigration policy is part of the problem. It also helps them see things from the perspective of immigrants, rather than American citizens.

At the parish level, churches with populations that include large numbers of immigrants should sponsor events in which people of different cultures interact with one another. These can include cultural celebrations of the immigrant group, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, or celebrations important to the parish or diocese. These events provide people with an opportunity to get to know immigrants as people first.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Arizona was a partial victory, there is much yet to be done. What both supporters and opponents of Arizona’s SB 1070 have failed to realize is that state and local police across the country are already free to check people’s immigration status, and are doing so; the law only made this a requirement for Arizona’s police. Racial profiling of Hispanics is not a hypothetical, it is a reality (also here and here). At the national level, political leaders, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have advocated for the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants, that is, the implementation of policies like those in Arizona and Alabama at the national level. The Catholic bishops must continue to teach and lobby, but they must also do a better job of forming Catholics to “welcome the stranger.”