I am Catholic—and I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe about immigration

Women in the United States hold crosses through the border fence Oct. 8, 2016, during rallies on the U.S.-Mexico border. Activists protested what they say is an increasing militarization of the border. (CNS photo/Jim West)

I am a Roman Catholic, and I do not know what I am supposed to believe about immigration. I mean that in all sincerity. Do not worry: I have read my Bible. I have read the Catechism. I have read the encyclicals. I submit to the pope. But I honestly do not know what I am supposed to believe.

I live in France and closely follow U.S. political debates—and try to influence them through my position at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. For all the specifics, the issue of immigration is framed in surprisingly similar (and overheated) terms in both countries. And my fellow Catholics are split between two camps that seem intent on shouting at each other. I have friends on both sides whose intelligence, faith and mercy I deeply respect.

My heart breaks for those who are, or feel, forced to leave their land, who want to make a better life, who suffer.

I do not know what I believe. I do not know what I believe because my heart breaks for those who are, or feel, forced to leave their land, who want to make a better life, who suffer. I do not know what I believe because there are genuine questions of both prudence and principle that remain unresolved. How many immigrants can any given society safely absorb? What are the empirical costs and benefits of immigration? (I have looked at a lot of social science, and the answer is murky.) Are Christians not supposed to believe in the legitimacy of civil authority and non-totalitarian states, which cannot exist without borders? Are we not supposed to be skeptical of the desires of the rich and of big business, who in the West overwhelmingly support and benefit from expanded immigration? I am not sure how to settle these matters.

So instead of lecturing, I want to pose the following questions, in all sincerity, because I do believe there are men and women of profound faith and genuine intellect on both sides.

To my friends who support an open door, I grant that we should be outraged by the plight of migrants and refugees. I grant the Gospel imperative to “welcome the stranger.” But here is the thing: The church’s doctrine also supports the right of sovereign countries to have borders. It is one of the most basic duties of states to enforce their borders. Church tradition recognizes that immigration must be subject to some regulation, rather than expecting a country to welcome every stranger. A state might design immigration rules not only for security reasons but also with concern about how many immigrants it can receive and how well they can integrate into its society. At some point, according to church doctrine, it is a country’s right and even duty to say “No” to some perfectly nice people.

Do you favor completely open borders? And if you do, why not simply make the case for that?

My question is: What is that point? I mean that seriously. I would be much more comfortable with emotion-laden appeals to “welcome the stranger” if they were accompanied with some logic or rationale for the point at which welcoming the stranger becomes imprudent. Or do you favor completely open borders? And if you do, why not simply make the case for that?

Now, to my friends who have found a line that must be drawn, that borders must be enforced, my question is: What is distinctly Christian about your approach? You make a lot of valid points—about the difficulties in integrating people who do not share the same culture, about the risk of increasing inequality by importing cheap labor. You are right to say that the specifics of immigration policy are a question of prudence, not simply doctrine.

But the doctrine is not silent. It does call on us to make a specific moral effort. Even if you are right empirically about the negative effects of increased immigration, it is still the case that the Gospel calls on us to show special, supererogatory concern for migrants and refugees. Put differently: What is it that would distinguish your ideal immigration regime from the ideal immigration regime of a completely secular person who happened to share your empirical analysis of the costs and benefits of immigration?

I have never seen my friends answer these questions. And I would—genuinely, truly—like to see an answer to them.

J Cosgrove
1 week 5 days ago

First thing to believe is that the United States needs a comprehensive immigration policy encoded into law.

Second thing to believe is that these laws have to be enforced.

Third thing to believe is that people have to be honest with each other when they discuss the topic and not appeal solely to emotional arguments. For example, the photo used with this article is typical of the emotional arguments Jesuits now use. Not evidence or reason.

You have highlighted many of the issues which fail to get discussed here at America, the magazine, as well as in America the country. It is a great article and I applaud you for writing it and the editors for publishing it.

Now to answering your question

What is distinctly Christian about your approach?

I will give you my thoughts in a subsequent comment.

Rob Abney
1 week 2 days ago

This is a timely article, I haven't encountered this approach to the subject of immigration and Catholic beliefs anywhere else, thanks for writing it. And I agree with both of your responses J Cosgrove.
I will add what I think the Christian/Catholic approach should be.
Once the government establishes a comprehensive immigration policy and enforces it effectively, then Catholics should ask for reasonable increases in the number of immigrants knowing that sacrifice will be required on our part.

J Cosgrove
1 week 5 days ago

What is distinctly Christian about your approach?

We as Christians want the good for everyone. The main good is salvation but we tend to forget that as much of the Church and nearly all the Jesuits I meet on this forum are only interested in heaven on earth and rarely mention salvation anymore.

But back to heaven on earth. Any solution has unintended consequences. Sometimes the consequences are extremely detrimental. Consider the confluence of two "do-gooder" policies enacted in the 1960's.

The first is the Great Society which tried to alleviate poverty amongst our poorest. One part of this policy was that it would support unmarried women with children financially. The objective was to ensure that the children could be raised without the crushing effects of extreme poverty. A married couple received less money. This had the effect of removing the stain of having children out of marriage. The Illegitimacy rate amongst African Americans went from the low 20% to over 70% today.

At the same time as the Great Society the immigration laws were changed. The result was a large influx of low skilled workers from Latin America, mainly Mexico at first but other countries as well This had the effect of lowering wages amongst this economic group and especially hit hard males in the African American community. Wages peaked in 1973 and you can actually identify the month.

The result was young black males had a hard time earning wages to support a stable family and the long term result is that millions of young men and women were raised without a father in the household.

So while this is not specifically a modern immigration policy discussion, it is one that shows that any discussion of immigration will have to consider unexpected secondary and tertiary issues which often will be negative. The pro immigration argument rarely discuss these.

What we get are emotional arguments such as the photos in this and other immigration articles, comments from holier than thou individuals on what the Christian thing to do is and the cliche that "We are all the products of immigration" as if nothing every changes or the results may be negative. The effects could be extremely negative as we have seen with what happened after the laws were changed in 1965.

So the Christian approach would be to avoid all these negative outcomes and try to maximize the positive outcomes in the countries that want to emigrate.

Thomas Severin
1 week 3 days ago

"The result was young black males had a hard time earning wages to support a stable family..."
Could you identify the specific jobs that immigrants took away or made less available to young black males?
"Wages peaked in 1973 and you can actually identify the month."
Could you please elaborate more specifically what you mean here?

J Cosgrove
1 week 3 days ago

Am away at a conference so don't have all the details. The workers were non supervisory workers most often without a high school education. They could be doing anything that did not require technical skills. Their wages suddenly stopped growing in 1973 after 20+ years of growth. And are less now than 40 years ago.

Ionathas Gnosis
1 week 4 days ago

Thank you for this post, Mr. Gobry. In response to your last question, how would an ideal Christian immigration regime differ from a secular one, I would pose a counter-question: is it necessary for a Christian immigration regime to differ from a secular one? When a state is making policies about driving, for instance, is it meaningful to speak of Christian rules of the road in contrast to secular rules of the road? If a Christian decided to make the same rules for driving as a secular person made, I don't think it calls the Christian's faith into question. Or even with just war theory, it seems to me that a Christian and a secular person could apply it and come to the same conclusion, but this would not mean that the Christian and secular person are ultimately one and the same in all their beliefs and principles. I'm not sure that we should expect a Christian's prudential judgment always to be different from that of non-Christians.

Moreover, if we ask our states for a Christian immigration policy, are we not essentially asking the state to base its policies on Christianity? And if we say that the state should base its policies of immigration on Christianity, do we not also allow the possibility that the state should base other policies on Christianity? And if the state bases its policies on Christianity, is that not "theocratic" or "integralist"? I'm not saying it's a bad thing for the state to base its policies on Christianity; I'm just pointing out that, if one allows the state to base its policies in one area on Christianity, then for the sake of consistency one has to allow the possibility that policies in other areas may or should also be based on Christianity.

Terry C
1 week 2 days ago

Yes it is necessary because from a secular point of view there is no moral imperative for an individual to put anyone else's needs before their own, however as a Christian we have a God who has told us that it is necessary for us to look after our brother. That being the case while it is possible that a secularist could decide through their moral framework that it is necessary to give succor to the immigrant or refugee it is just as likely that their moral framework not require this.
As a matter of fact the state should base their policies upon Christianity. Every law includes a moral dimension. Whenever the decision is made to impel someone to take or refrain from an action under threat, which is what a law does a moral decision has been made. The United States has been so successful because at its origin it was based on Christian morality. Where it failed, such as in the area of issues such as slavery it was because it failed to uphold Christian principles. Now they were Protestant Christian values so sometimes they didn't align with Catholic values, but generally they were close.
Now that the law has started to not just ignore Christian values but in many cases work against them we are seeing the results in our degrading culture.
I would also point out that at the beginning of the last century immigrants were welcomed in the United States (more by the government perhaps than some individuals ). Just about anyone who wasn't a criminal or disease carrier was allowed entry. Immigration law, with it's attempt to keep out people based on nationality was a product of Progressivism and sought to keep out primarily Jews and Catholics (particularly those from Eastern Europe.) That alone to me is a good reason to be against those kinds of closed borders. Generally speaking people are wealth. I am unashamedly an open borders guy, though perhaps a vetted border guy might be more accurate. We need to have secure borders and know about every person we let in. The only people that should be excluded are criminals and terrorists. In today's society it is not really that hard to determine who has posted what and who associate with whom. Will some innocent people get exclude because they posted the wrong thing or associated with the wrong people? Probably. But the vast majority of potential immigrants will not be in that position. It's better than making a Mexican citizen who just wants to work wait 60 years for a legal entry to the U.S.

Benoit Gautier
1 week 3 days ago

Cher Pascal-Emmanuel,

I think that what sets Christianity apart on such issues as economics, immigration and even pacifisim, is that it aknowleges that political action is fundamentally an open wound. On one hand, christians must be good citizens and should work for humane and rational solutions, just like any other citizen. On the other hand, they must be living signs of the Kingdom. So on immigration, some christians should advocate for rational policies, and those might or might not be enforcing borders, while allowing other christians to advocate for radical inclusion. To me this has to do with the fact that christianity was at the root an apocalyptical faith. We must act as if the End was tomorrow morning, but we know we might have to hang around a while.

See Leon Bloy on money (Le sang du pauvre): on one hand, inequality is unbearable, so the politically conservative arguments are insulting and unchristian, on the other hand radical political solutions do not seem to work. The result is you have to keep praying for Christ to come, and you sould not be content with the way things are, keep shouting and keep being angry. See also Mgr Robert Barron's comments on the movie Mission : yes, violence is part of politics, and christians can engage in it, if they have to, but, being a living sign of a radical pacifism is necessary to call everyone to a different order of things. To me this order is the Kingdom of God. So, christian politics on this subject has just to be good politics. But there is an other kind of christian action, and that is testimony for an other order, and it doesn't have to obey to the rationale of politics.

Emmanuel Levinas had exactly the same kind of questions you have, being a practicing Jew and a thinker focused on ethics, His conclusion, if I recall well, was that the Liberal State (in the sense of a pluralist state) was the best kind of political apparatus to make those two visions coexist. In such a state, you can have rational and calculating policies who can lead to the implementation of hard decisions. But you also have a kind of voice of conscience in the person of let's say activists, religious or not, who can constantly remind the state that if it might be just, these policies cannot be the beginning or the end of what humans do regarding such difficult questions. So a modest and self conscious state. I have the feeling you might like this idea.

Bien cordialement,

Michael Depietro
1 week 3 days ago

The fact that someone is asking the question in this fashion shows how confused we are about the relationship between public policy and Catholicism. It is a little like a physician asking I am a Catholic and I do not know what to believe about the best therapy for lung cancer. You are asking the wrong question. First, on all issues for which public policy and morals intersect, the proper moral course is defined not by what we know through faith, but rather what we know through our understanding of natural law. In fact almost all Catholic moral teaching is based on natural law. So there should be nothing specifically Christian in our approach, other than the idea that morally Christians should obey the natural law, which of course has it's ultimate source in God. Second the natural law has some basic principles which no one disputes:
1) People have a basic right to emmigrate and seek a better life for themselves
2) We have duties to the poor and vulnerable to assist them in seeking a better life.
3) Countries have moral duties to protect the well being of their citizens, including the poor withing their own borders, and in fact the duty to their own citizens is paramount much as the duty to your own children outweighs the duty to a stranger. ( Leaving aside of course the specific issue and degree of need of each).
4) Political debates should be conducted honestly, not involve demagoguery and should seek to advance the common good.
That is pretty much what you should believe as a "Catholic". The specifics of the US problem with our Southern border involves the complex question of how to balance the needs to not have our own social services overwhelmed by individuals immigrating illegally, and how to particularly identify amidst the large numbers of individuals violating our border laws just to seek work, the small but potentially dangerous fraction of those doing the same thing because they are criminals, drug dealers or potential terrorists and who will do us grave harm. We do not need a lot more M-13 entering the US for example. This is mixed in with a number of other factual questions and prudential judgements ( For example how many people are actually illegally immigrating, as this number has been dropping for a decade. It should also be noted that it is quite possible and humane to say... well you illegally immigrated cause you needed work, so we will let you stay, but... you broke our laws so don't plan on becoming a voting Citizen because... well you broke our laws...
None of this is what you "should believe as a Catholic" because the specific solution to our immigration problems involves the analysis of the situation in light of specific empiric facts and making countless prudential judgement that most of us do not have the expertise to comment on. Indeed the American Bishops have often been way off the mark about this, including their strident comments about President Trumps decision to suspend the executive order re DACA and ask congress to act on this suggesting the individuals are given some sort of legal status. I actually favor giving them some sort of status ( See above you can stay forever but you can not vote because... well your parents brought you here against the law... If God can hold the human race accountable for the sin of Adam...... you get the idea... The Bishops should be familiar with the concept...
In any case none of this is specifically Catholic...

Mike Anderson
1 week 3 days ago

The subject of immigration is a predominately economic and political one. Jesus never got involved in the political even though the Roman government acted in opposition to what He was preaching.

Believe what you want to believe about what governments do, and if you want to change life on Earth, get involved to change it. As Catholic, live your life as a Catholic: love one another. If you have an illegal immigrant acquaintance, love them. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

rose-ellen caminer
1 week 3 days ago

I think it is immoral for a functioning democracy to close its doors to refugees of wars. Imagine having bombs falling on you and your loved ones[by ones own government or by an invading military] or escaping being occupied by a violent militia like ISIS with all the horrors they commit? And being told you are not welcome here. Because you can't prove you are a victim not a perpetrator?Or being corralled in some camps for the accident of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time as a victim of war? That to me is as immoral as it gets. Its complicity with evil. [ I thought we learned that lesson with the holocaust]. The argument that people from war torn countries cannot be vetted, because the governments are not reliable, is a catch twenty two. If the country were functioning properly, there would be no refugees. This is just a rationale to deny refuge to people we have no empathy for. No, there are no guarantees allowing any immigrant in to ones country that none will never do anything wrong, but anyone can be up to no good. Collective suspicion or collective guilt or collective punishment[ denying people safe haven] by country of origin or religion is the epitome of injustice. Its callous; the banality of evil. Many people have died with this mindset and to allow it today is as immoral as it was in the past. Whether one is Christian or a[secular] nation state, the ethics is the same ; turning people away who are in dire straits is immoral. [And when a country that prides itself of being made up of immigrants fleeing injustice and wars and persecutions, it is doubly wrong; its truly hateful bigotry].
A nation state has the right to enforce its borders by turning people away who try to come here illegally to migrate for economic reasons.This is different from people escaping natural disasters and wars and persecutions i.e. refugees. Allowing the free flow of people across borders, who are not documented, creates a work force that undermines fair labor .It also, as Trump said, creates a corridor for criminals. And allows for exploitation of people in the work force and in trafficking. Though no one should be sent back across a desert or under terrible conditions, and every person should have a right to ask for asylum. In situations of catastrophic natural disasters refugees should be allowed in too.
The issue of the harm that may come from allowing immigrants who don't share out culture is a bogus concern. Nation states are all comprised of different tribes[cultures] if one goes back far enough. A country's culture changes over time without the inherent core values and government system that protects those core values being compromised or overturned. A functioning democracy with its cohesive history has values that are secured by the laws and the government system, and adhered to in the minds and hearts of the citizens. It need not fear being overrun by a diametrically opposed culture. That is a bogus argument as our laws and values are solidly entrenched in our system. Immigrant's descendants do assimilate even as they also change the culture. That is part of the dynamic of world history; movement of people over time and across the earth. The economic cost of allowing refugees is a burden that we are obliged to take on; it is the cost of being human[whether Christian or a secular country ] to respond to the suffering of other human beings; what is more vulnerable then refugees of wars and disasters?

Carol Cover
1 week 3 days ago

Immigration is not a belief system. Immigration refers to the act of moving to a country not of one's birth, usually for permanent residence. All countries have immigration laws. These laws exist to protect the country. There is a difference between immigration and illegal immigration. Illegal immigration means entering a country contrary to the laws of that country. It is a crime in that country. People who want to change the immigration laws of their country have legal ways of making that happen. None of this has anything to do with emotions or religious belief.

Charles Erlinger
1 week 2 days ago

I think your concern is very legitimate. I tend to approach such problems in the most boring possible way, thinking about the overall most desirable objective that would seem to be best for both the immigrants, the refugees, and the citizens of our nation. Once I have a fairly coherent picture of what objective I believe, as a U. S. citizen and Christian, that I should support, I begin speculating about what sort of strategies might bring about the desired result, knowing, of course, that, since strategies sometimes fail and need to be abandoned for different strategies, that the two rules of thumb, feasibility and flexibility, will need be followed. Then I try to think about what guideposts of moral principle ought to be used in judging what strategies I should support. The principles that come to mind in this case are the moral virtues of prudence and justice, on the one hand, and the works of mercy, on the other hand.

The end-state that I would support consists in our annual welcoming of some number of immigrants and refugees in proportion to our needs and abilities to absorb them as potential citizens, adhering to our self-described American values of respect for their human personhood and without discrimination on the bases of those characteristics that we are always telling ourselves and others that we do not use for discrimination. Jointly with that desired end-state would be the goal of remediating the conditions of the home-countries of refugees and economically motivated immigrants so that their need to resort to risky, life-threatening measures to escape their home-country miseries would be obviated. So the objective that I would support has a domestic policy component and a foreign policy component.

There is a two-element strategy that would seem to be supportable, in order to achieve the two-featured end-state, one foreign and one domestic.

The foreign element pertains to achieving results in the home-countries of refugees and economically motivated immigrants. It involves complex long term strategies that need to be coherently related to the domestic immigration strategy. Sticking to the problem of Mexican and Central and South American immigrants and refugees, for discussion purposes, there is not much doubt that historically we have had a short-sighted foreign policy with respect to those nations nearest to us geographically. We have to start correcting that, and not limit our efforts to jiggering the domestic immigration laws. We have over two centuries missed many opportunities, according to 20-20 hindsight. The trick is to learn from the hindsight that we need to be on very close terms with our neighbors in relationships that can be seen to be mutually beneficial as well as respectful. I would support a strategy that ties our western hemisphere nations ever more closely, so that some day we might even share certain values regarding governance. Somehow we need to agree that the loss of significant population to the U. S. cannot possibly be in the long term interest of the losing nations. It might take a very long time to build mutually beneficial relations with our closest western hemisphere neighbors. We’re not off to a good start in the 21st century.

The domestic strategy that I would support is more or less the one spelled out in the comprehensive immigration reform effort that in the not too distant past had insufficient bi-partisan congressional support. The one thing that I would suggest is that the legislation leave room explicitly for the discretionary exercise of mercy by the executive. Mercy, as Aquinas said long ago, is the virtue of relieving another’s misery. If misery is what drives the populations of some of our Western Hemisphere neighbors to risk their lives to attempt to enter our country, it seems like a happy combination of virtue and common sense to relieve it either in their home country or in ours.

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