The debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch in America, fueled by the heart-rending spectacle of the plight of all those unaccompanied children who have been coming to our southern border in recent months.
I am no expert on immigration, but I’ve been trying to think about this issue from a Catholic perspective, guided by the teachings of our bishops and our Holy Father. It seems to me that there are a number of fundamental principles that are in tension in this area, and it extraordinarily difficult to make them all fit together well.
Let’s take as our starting point a teaching from St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:
Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community (25).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the basic issues very clearly:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)
These principles show us that the way we think about this problem is the key consideration. There is no question that our civil authorities have an obligation to preserve and protect the common good of our particular political society, which includes enactment and enforcement of just laws. People have a right to emigrate to seek prosperity and freedom for themselves and their families, but they also have an obligation to obey the laws of the nation they enter.
But we always have to remember that human laws and political structures don’t exist as ends in themselves, and they don’t have the preeminent place in the hierarchy of goods. They don’t define the full scope of human aspiration or fulfillment. States are purely provisional entities that exist solely to provide for the good of the people within them. I love America, but it is not a divinely-ordained institution, and it is not essential to the divine will or to the plan of salvation. To think otherwise can come very close to a form of idolatry.
As a result, we have to think outside of our political boundaries, and be concerned with all members of the human family — not just those who happen to hold a particular citizenship, or who speak a certain language, or who had the good fortune to have ancestors who emigrated prior to a certain date, or who managed to find a home within some arbitrary political boundaries.
Our policy solutions also can’t be dominated solely by economic factors. We have to beware of any way of thinking that treats immigrants as mere means to be used for ends, welcomed to the extent that they are useful to us and discarded when they are not. People are not objects, and must be treated as the image of God among us.
Articulating these principles is easy. Finding the right policies to implement them is certainly not so easy. Our bishops and the Holy Father are not saying that we have to have open borders, or that people can disregard the law at a whim. They are saying that we need to address the humanitarian needs of immigrants — particularly the unaccompanied children — as best we can, as our top priority. We then have to work to reunite them with family members, without just throwing them on buses back or interning them in refugee camps. Long-term answers would then include repatriation, or admitting them as refugees or as temporary residents based on an evaluation of their individual cases.
On top of this, we have to make sure that we work with the governments in the source and transit countries to improve the awful social conditions that have led to this emigration, and to prevent exploitation of migrants. This is crucial. The drug trade — largely fueled by drug use in America — has led to a disastrous disintegration of much of Latin American society. The problem of immigration can’t be addressed without confronting this reality, and accepting our responsibility for correcting it.
When we listen to the Catholic perspective on this issue, we see that persons come first in our considerations, and our priorities start to fall into place. We won’t’t make decisions based on fear, suspicion, party politics, or prejudice. And we can work together to formulate sensible public policies that promote the common good and respect the fundamental human rights and needs of all.