What should guide U.S. immigration policy: self-interest or charity?

A Mexican girl peers through the fence during Mass at the international border in Nogales, Ariz., Oct. 23. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) 

You do not have to be a football fan to have heard about the controversy that erupted over the national anthem this season in the N.F.L. It began with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African-Americans in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said when asked to explain his action.

The demonstration caught on in other venues, including the N.B.A., professional women’s soccer, college cheerleaders, high school bands.

I confess I was offended. Federal law says that when the national anthem is played, people should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. There is, of course, no penalty for violation; the First Amendment would not allow it. But the protests take the bitterness and division of politics today a step further, into dangerous territory. They show a disdain for the country, not a particular party or candidate. Simple exercises like singing the national anthem at football games may seem trivial. But in a nation as large and diverse as ours, it is a ritual that serves to bind us together.

But my reflection on these symbolic protests has led me down a surprising path. The protesters got attention precisely because they took seriously the moral implications of standing during the national anthem. If it were indeed an empty ritual, there would be no point in protesting against it. But it is not like singing the 49ers fight song. Rather, our standing together is an affirmation of America’s essential goodness and a personal commitment to preserve, protect and defend our country.

This may seem like an odd lead-in to a discussion of this country’s immigration debate, but it shines a light on a most important point. If the United States is a moral actor in its own right, an entity distinct from the sum of its citizens, it can be judged as good or bad, worthy or unworthy of our allegiance.

Love of country, like the love that binds two people together, begins with an appreciation for the goodness of the one we love. What, then, would be a good immigration policy in this sense—the kind that would inspire love for our country?

One principle, which has guided both current policy and suggestions for reform, is enlightened national self-interest. We ask: What can immigrants do for the United States? Current law admits 140,000 people each year as permanent immigrants if they hold advanced degrees or are multinational executives or persons of extraordinary ability in the arts or sciences, or if they will invest $500,000 in an enterprise that will hire U.S. workers. We also admit temporary agricultural workers on H-2A visas if there are not enough U.S. workers to harvest our crops.

The Republican Party’s platform for the 2016 election extended this principle to its logical conclusion. It said, “America’s immigration policy must serve the national interest of the United States, and the interests of American workers must be protected over the claims of foreign nationals seeking the same jobs.” For that reason, it argued, we should reduce the number of immigrants who are offered permanent residence.

It is not right to say, as some do, that enlightened self-interest is immoral or discriminatory as a principle to guide individual or national decision-making. But neither is it a quality we fall in love with.

There is another option, which the church commends to rich nations like ours: to practice the virtues of charity and hospitality. We should “welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2241). And nations should respect the natural right “that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”

Putting to one side the concerns of political prudence, it seems plain that an immigration policy rooted in charity and hospitality is worthy of our admiration. That is what Emma Lazarus expressed in the sonnet she wrote for the Statue of Liberty:

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

This generous approach to immigration is neither politically expedient nor free of risk. Many citizens have argued in good faith for a more restrictive policy. But would you not love and admire a country that opened its doors to the tired, the poor, the wretched and the homeless, even if they could not promise it a fair return for its hospitality? On this, at least, Mr. Kaepernick and I may find some agreement: A country that gave such a welcome to the least of our brothers and sisters would be worth standing and taking our hats off for.

Michael Barberi
4 months 4 weeks ago

The U.S. had an open door policy without any restrictions on immigration for much of its life. However, with the avalanche of immigrants in the late Restrictions on the number of immigrants became law in the mid 1920s

The 12 million illegal immigrants who are living in the US today is a problem, that in part, rests with the U.S. For the past 50 years we have had a weak, ineffective and irresponsible border security plan. For the most part, we looked the other way as millions of people entered the US illegally.

As to virtues such as compassion, love and hospitality, they demand the virtue of prudence. On the one hand, the US cannot have unrestricted immigration and we should not have to deal with millions of people that other countries have neglected. Where is the criticism of countries whose economic policies have failed its people miserably causing the influx of illegal immigration to the US?

Once the border is secured and illegal criminal immigrants are deported, we can construct a compassionate and prudent immigration policy and a path to citizenship for those 12 million illegal immigrants who, for all practical purposes, are behaving like good so-called US citizens.

It's time to stop describing an extreme definition of virtue (as thought this is what God commands us to do) and realize the prudent thing to do is to find the answer in a responsible middle ground. that balances all the moral factors.

Bruce Snowden
4 months 4 weeks ago

Always charity, mindful of what St. Augustine said, "Charity is good, but it must never be practice contrary to sound judgment."

J Cosgrove
4 months 4 weeks ago

A couple comments:

First:

It began with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African-Americans in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,”

Colin Kaepernick has no validpoint. He has not shown that the country is oppressing blacks in any systematic way. He was influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement which is based on lies. His whole agenda from the beginning has been bogus.

Blacks have several severe disadvantages in many parts of the US but there is no systematic oppression going on. The cause for these disadvantages should be debated but the authors on this site have not yet done so.

Second:

But would you not love and admire a country that opened its doors to the tired, the poor, the wretched and the homeless, even if they could not promise it a fair return for its hospitality?

Wages have been suppressed at the low end by the immigration of millions of low skilled workers into the United States since the laws for immigration were changed in 1965. Currently there are about 80 million people (immigrants, their children and grandchildren) in the US as a result of the law change.

This had an immediate effect of depressing wages so that by 8 years later in 1973 wages for working people in the United States peaked while those involved in more technical jobs got large increases. Forty three years later in 2016 wages were less than they were in 1973 for non supervisory workers. This was one of the main causes for the election of Donald Trump as after 40 years of stagnant wages, more and more people revolted.

Currently, there are 65 million people in the United States who do not speak English in their household (a large percentage do know some English but many do not). There is not enough jobs for these people so wages are at best stagnant as a lot of Americans see others doing very well while they are struggling.

This varies by region of the country as some places in the US do not have enough workers unless there is immigrant labor. One irony of the new Trump Wall is that many of the workers will be immigrants as business is booming in Texas.

So is it prudent to let even more low skilled workers into the US and depress wages even more? This will certainly hurt those at the low end of the economic scale even more. This is what should be debated not whether we should be generous by blindly letting in tens of millions who wants to come because that is what is being recommended by the author. It is asking for chaos.

Eileen Malloy
4 months 3 weeks ago

Illegal aliens are guilty of breaking 3 Commandents: They covet their neighbors' goods, they lie when they cheat to break in illegally, and then they steal (take resources they have no entitlement to). Catholics are so sick of it too. Dishonesty cannot be tolerated when it's a sin against Christ/God.

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