Trying to Think about Immigration

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.


6 Responses to “Trying to Think about Immigration”

  1. Alexis says:

    Excellent – as expected.

    Perhaps you should explain a little more about the competing interests from the perspective of a nation. On the one hand, a nation has the duty to welcome foreigners out of respect for the human person. Yet on the other hand, a nation also has the duty to secure its borders and enact laws for the sake of the common good. So essentially, immigration policy is a balancing act. You can’t have open borders, but you also can’t restrict all immigration. This is a hard fact to accept because neither “side” will be totally satisfied.

    Also, you write:

    “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.”

    Of course, we must be concerned with all members of the human family. However, we cannot ignore ties based on language, ethnicity, geographical region, etc. and their significance. These are real aspects of the human experience. For example, if France (or any other country) wants to preserve certain aspects of French culture (language, traditions, etc.), France has the right to do so. Unfortunately, immigrants may be at odds with such policies. Yet again, this shows how immigration is a balancing act.

  2. DottieDay says:

    I am nauseated that our Bishops have been collaborating for years (FOR YEARS!) to traffick these immigrants into our country, to collapse our already weak borders, and to accuse citizen Catholics that antagonism toward this invasion is heartless and hardhearted. This while the Catholic charities with the bishops’ approval, is lining its pockets with millions of dollars all under the disguise of humanitarian help.

    How many of the girls have been raped, Your Eminences? How many girls are being sent to the Planned Parenthood tent (this is immigrant blood on your hands.) And since this Government and President put homosexuality at the top of the human rights list, do we even want to think what is happening to the boys? Do we expect the boys will be given any protection from men having their way with them? What a freakin’ disaster and there is our Churches daring to make snarky mean-spirited accusations against Americans who see the deception and contempt for our country and its people as the President blithely destroys our national sovereignty.

    I posted this on the Cardinal’s blog, but I have little hope it will be posted in a timely way. I put it here because it most clearly expresses my outrage and disgust with our corporate Church:

    The Catholic Church will break in two over this (the immigrant flash mob).

    Your wholehearted partnership with the Government, i.e., the Masters of this Border Deceit, is unsettling. This is after all the most anti-life and anti-Catholic Government in our nation’s history. There is no great and wonderful OZ behind the DC curtain. Only lies and the advance of darkness.

    I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How must he have felt as he watched his beloved Church fall into wicked cooperation with the State.

    Our Church has become the Patriotic Catholic Church in America. As one of your smelly American sheep, I cry in despair and anger: Spare me sermons about unity , hardheartedness and lack of charity. Spare me from hearing the word “welcome” again from men in the pulpit with scales on their eyes. Spare me orchestrated photos of Masses on the border with hands reaching through the security fence. Spare me pictures of our clergy praying with the political elites. Spare me your scolding language. Spare me your inattention to your citizen sheep.

    Let those bishops who would be missionaries, go to the foreign places and serve the poor as the Church has traditionally done.

    Spare us all of it before we lose our minds, our Church and our faith.

  3. Ed Mechmann says:


    Please consider these words of St. John Paul II about undocumented migrants, from his Message for World Migration Day (1996):

    “The Church considers the problem of illegal migrants from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all within a communion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership, but on the common desire to accept God’s word and to seek justice. ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).”

    The rest of St. John Paul’s message contains some very pragmatic, Christian suggestions about how nations should address the situation of illegal immigration.

  4. Ed Mechmann says:


    There is no question that this issue involves competing interests that are very difficult to resolve. As you say, there is no “all or nothing” solution that will work, whether it’s open borders/amnesty for all or closed borders/build higher fences. I think that’s the problem with the current debate — the partisans are holding out for absolute solutions, which may work well on radio talk shows or the political stump, but it’s no way to make public policy or promoting the common good, and it’s certainly no way to show the face of Christ to our world.

    As for the preservation of culture, you’re absolutely right. The idea of social cohesion is very important — it’s a necessary component of the common good in any society, because it promotes the proper sense of solidarity among the members of that community. It is also a duty of the immigrant to try to fit into their new culture, as best they can. And it generally happens naturally — usually within a generation or two, an immigrant family is virtually completely assimilated into their new culture.

    In the old days, there was a concept called “Americanization”, which was a fancy word for helping and encouraging immigrants to assimilate into the common American culture by learning to speak English and by promoting patriotism and civics knowledge. Things like military service, public education, voting, and civic celebrations (like fireworks on July 4, singing the National Anthem at ballgames) all contribute to that. It’s become lost a bit with the emphasis on “multiculturalism”, but it still thrives — particularly among the new immigrants, who want very hard to fit in.

    Of course, cultural integration is not easy — many of the European countries are really struggling with it. You also have to be very careful how you do it, so as to avoid negative forms of ethnocentric nationalism that can easily lead to racism and xenophobia (e.g., “blood and soil”). Also to be avoided is a virtual apartheid system, where new immigrants are essentially segregated into a subculture (most vividly seen in semi-permanent refugee camps, but also in the French banlieus).

    The difficulty in making policy in this area is a reality. But I am convinced that some solutions become clear once we take on the attitude for a Christian when we approach the question.

  5. joey says:

    Interesting how DottieDay equates same-sex parenting to pedophilia, an obvious and deliberate fabrication that does not coincide with Catholic teaching at all, and no one addresses that point.

  6. DottieDay says:

    Ed, Clearly we are not talking from the same vantage point. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is impossible to make sense of the immigration flash mob issue if one of us talks moral theology and the other talks politics. Plain and simple, I see this manmade crisis as fool’s gold.

    The latest consideration I offer is here from Phil Lawler (no hothead like me) — reminding us very reasonably how dangerous it for the Church to partner with Uncle Sam (how long before the term Uncle Sam is declared sexist and hateful?)