Alumnus on a Catholic, conservative position on immigration

Kevin Richardson is the mayor of Lake Barrington, Illinois, and a graduate of Notre Dame (‘79). He served as College Republican Chair and the Political Editor of the Observer as a student. His career has included service on the Republican staff of the House Judiciary Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, DC, as well as the chief government affairs officer for a variety of large companies and trade associations. In 2012, Richardson was a Romney delegate to the Republican National Convention. Presently, Richardson is working with both Republican and Democrat mayors across the country in support of immigration reform. The Irish Rover conducted an email interview with him about this current issue.

Irish Rover: It is not an exaggeration to say that people on both sides of the aisle believe that the immigration system is broken. In what ways do you think that the immigration system is broken?

Richardson: The current immigration system is broken in two fundamental ways. The first is the adverse economic consequences that stem from the current system. The nation needs to create a less bureaucratic and more time-sensitive immigration system that allows workers of all types—seasonal, agricultural, lesser-skilled, and high-skilled—to lawfully come to America, either temporarily or permanently—and contribute to our economy. As part of the fix, I think it is also important to assure that an effective and uniform system of employment verification is established.

Second, and more importantly, we need to address the compelling moral issues that arise out of the dysfunction of the current immigration system. I believe that it is vital for immigration reform legislation to enable people to come out of the shadows and fully pursue the American Dream for themselves and their families. Most critically, reform must assure that we not separate families but, rather, work to preserve them.

Do Republicans and Democrats see different parts as broken? What are the differences?

The major issues in immigration reform have been pretty much identified. There is widespread agreement on what the problems are, but there are differences both between and within the parties as how best to address these issues. I supported the bipartisan efforts of the US Senate’s “Gang of 8” last year, which resulted in Senate’s passing of comprehensive immigration reform. Some of the differences both between and within the parties are procedural while others are substantive. For example, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but the House is pursuing a step-by-step approach. Similarly, Republicans—much more so than Democrats—stress the importance of strengthening border security before addressing other issues.

Is yours a typical Republican view, or is it atypical being informed by Catholic social teaching?

I see my views on immigration reform as consistent with the thinking of many traditional conservative Republicans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and reflective of the principles for immigration reform outlined by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I also think there is another point worth making: that immigration reform does not stand alone as an example of where the views of traditional conservative Republicans and the Church coincide on issues of public policy. From agreement on respect for life to the defense of religious liberty—especially vis-à-vis the Obamacare mandates—to the strong support of Catholic schools via the expansion of parental empowerment through greater educational choice, I believe traditional conservative Republicans—again, both Catholic and non-Catholic—often find common cause with the Church on issues of public policy.

Of what do you believe Catholic social teaching informs us about immigration reform?

Continuing the guidance offered by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has made a number of statements concerning the importance that the Church attaches to immigration issues. As American Catholics, we should certainly be guided by these teachings, but it is important to note that the Holy Father speaks to the entire world, as immigration issues exist on a global basis and not just in the United States. Pope Francis stated his views most succinctly in a tweet he sent last July, saying, “We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants.” The USCCB notes that the “Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person … The second duty is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good.”

My admittedly unscholarly interpretation of these principles—I am not an academician nor am I trained as a theologian—can be stated as a conviction that policymakers have an affirmative obligation to respect the individual and the family as they work to develop the legal constructs that govern our society. It is tragic that families are being torn apart through the record number of deportations in recent years. The human price being paid because of a broken immigration system—often ignored by the mainstream media—underscores the urgent need to enact meaningful immigration reform quickly that will allow families to be preserved.

What role does your Notre Dame education or current involvement at Notre Dame play in your political work? What needs to be done at Notre Dame to address the issue of immigration more effectively?

I am honored to serve on the Advisory Council of the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at Notre Dame as well as work on the Immigration Task Force of the US Conference of Mayors. Both my service on the ILS Advisory Council and my Notre Dame education have helped make me more effective in the latter assignment as both have equipped me to be successful in advancing both secular political and faith-based arguments in the immigration debate. I am proud of the work of the ILS, of Notre Dame’s commitment to the ILS, and the strong, clear voice that [University President] Father John Jenkins, CSC, has brought to the issue of immigration reform. I believe the university is leading in a manner consistent with its mission and the teachings of the Church.

Tell me more about your immigrant roots.  How has this influenced what you do?

While most of my ancestors arrived in America long before my birth, my dad’s father was an immigrant and I grew up in a heavily Catholic community outside of Chicago, where most kids had at least one grandparent who came from another country.  We could often hear the grandparents in the neighborhood speak Italian, Polish, Spanish, Greek, Lithuanian, or any other number of languages.  Later in life, it became obvious to me that, regardless of where our grandparents came from, they all came for the same reason—to live freely and to create a better life for their children and grandchildren.  In turn, they brought energy and creativity that made America better.  Like many Notre Dame alumni of my generation, I have been privileged to do many exciting things in both my life and my career, and I am always mindful of the fact that much of my success rests upon the shoulders of an immigrant barber who came to America with a 4th grade education and $8.00 in his pocket.

What is the American Dream?  Is this compatible with the Latino way of life?  To me, the American Dream has become very individualistic, my wealth, my status, etc., but the Latino immigrant community is defined in a large sense by their commitment to community, quite contrary to individualism.

The American Dream—at least in my life’s experience and that of my parents and grandparents—reflects something quite different than the “me-first” materialism that contemporary culture and media too often portray.  For me, the phrase “American Dream” reflects the fundamental link between America’s traditional political freedoms and the concomitant, faith-based moral commitment between generations, which focuses on both the betterment of those who come later and the long-term care of those who come earlier and sacrificed for future generations.  This is why I have always seen the American Dream as being far more about giving than about taking or receiving.  In my experience, the pursuit of the American Dream often times has reflected parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents making selfless choices so that those who came after them might have a greater opportunity to lead lives that are more fulfilling, happy, and prosperous.  What can be sometimes overlooked in our society is the reciprocal moral obligation that falls upon the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by prior generations to honor and care for their ancestors through the living of lives that are charitable, responsible, and reflective of the faith traditions of those who came before.

Conversely, I do find agreement with that part of your premise which suggests that what has been historically known as the American Dream has, in your words, “become very individualistic…”  To be sure, our increasingly anti-religious culture has, to my increasing chagrin, sought to redefine the American Dream in a way that undermines the long-standing reciprocal moral obligation that those who have been blessed with prosperity and success are affirmatively charged with a faith-based imperative to care for those “who got us there” along with those others who continue to struggle with poverty and deprivation.  The immigrant-influenced ethnic Catholic culture I experienced as a child recognized that the traditional American Dream has always rested upon the moral and religious calling that comes from the Gospel of St. Luke who wrote in Luke 12:48, “(T)o whom much is given, much is required.”

It is certainly true that Latino culture—much like the larger community of immigrant-influenced, ethnic Catholic cultures that have come to the U.S. from all over the world throughout our history—deeply honors family and community in a way that may appear different from traditional Calvinist notions of individualism that have been oft-associated with the American Dream.  In my mind, however, the differences here may not be as great as the similarities.  For example, while immigrant-influenced ethnic Catholic culture may be more communal in its thinking that non-Catholic populations in our society, immigrant-influenced Catholic ethnics have shown themselves to be every bit as engaged in the pursuit of success within our free enterprise system as any of their non-Catholic counterparts.  Indeed, the data shows that Latinos are quite entrepreneurial and, as a community, have a high rate of small business startups.  Moreover, I know firsthand both through my friendships with many in the Latino community and the data reflected in polling that Latino parents—similar to the immigrant Catholic parents from other countries and ethnic groups who have been coming to America’s eastern shores from Europe for the past 150+ years—have shown a profound commitment to the education of their children as a key enabler of future prosperity and success.  (As an aside, I will note that this is why the work being done by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education is so important.)

What I have seen and learned in life tells me that the American Dream can and does take many shapes but always operates within the broad parameters of secular/civil political freedom and the reciprocal, faith-based commitments I use to define it.  Immigrant-influenced Catholic culture—including, but not limited to, Latino culture—has tailored the broad parameters of the American Dream to reflect and respond to its unique cultural mores and needs but the foundations of the American Dream, as pursued by all ethnic, racial, and religious groups, have always rested upon and reflected the political freedom our ancestors fought to win and preserve and the reciprocal, faith-based obligations set forth in Luke 12:48.

This notion of the American Dream was beautifully—and humorously—depicted in the highly popular 2002 film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Although the immigrant ethnic family in the film was Greek by heritage and Greek Orthodox by religious affiliation, it spoke brilliantly to the immigrant Catholic cultural experience and the aspiration of all ethnic Catholic communities to embrace the traditional American Dream.  Indeed, countless Roman Catholics with whom I spoke at the time of the film’s release enthusiastically agreed that the film could have been just as easily titled “My Big Fat Irish Wedding”, “My Big Fat Mexican Wedding”, “My Big Fat Polish Wedding,” or “My Big Fat Italian Wedding”.

John VanBerkum is writing this on the first real sunny day of the year. Spring is awesome. Share the joy with him at