Here’s what we are supposed to believe about immigration as Catholics

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, and representatives of the “Share the Journey” campaign by Caritas Internationalis in support of immigrants, at the Vatican on Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, and representatives of the “Share the Journey” campaign by Caritas Internationalis in support of immigrants, at the Vatican on Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry asks some fascinating questions in good faith of immigration advocates and foes alike. The Catholic Church has long espoused an ethic of “welcoming the stranger” but also recognizes the right of a sovereign nation to enforce its borders. Mr. Gobry wishes to know at what point a nation might deny entry to “some perfectly nice people” and what might be distinctively Catholic about this position. I would like to provide the outline of a response.

The distinctively Catholic position is that a precise delineation of limits on immigration is virtually impossible. That precision would require us to consider immigration in the abstract, separate from the social, economic and political circumstances in which people live and work at any given moment. The Catholic view of immigration is a view about human beings and why they migrate, recognizing that most do so reluctantly and for legitimate reasons. A sovereign nation must have a significant reason for restricting this movement. In their 2003 pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the U.S. bishops make clear that contemporary Catholic thinking reverses the usual presuppositions that favor restrictions.

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Catholic social teaching characterizes the person as expressing themselves through their labor, their family ties and their community attachments. It rejects the idea that migrants are “takers,” illegitimately seeking to appropriate the goods of others. As familial creatures, we migrate reluctantly—for example, when sustenance is jeopardized by social and economic conditions. The good news for receiving countries is that migrants, like all human beings, are “makers” who express important aspects of their identity in their work unless they are frustrated from doing so by artificial political restrictions. When the latter happens, the state itself creates the problems associated with “undocumented immigrants.”

Catholic social teaching rejects the idea that migrants are “takers,” illegitimately seeking to appropriate the goods of others.

A society that sees human beings as rooted in connectedness would aim at policies that honor those connections in several ways. Yet virtually all changes to our immigration laws over the last 30 years have sought to marginalize undocumented immigrants by making it nearly impossible for them to seek a path to citizenship and by cutting them off from basic services. In their 2000 pastoral letter “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” the U.S. bishops argued for the repeal of three major laws passed in 1996 that made it much more difficult to gain legal permanent residence and that excluded immigrants from eligibility for federal benefits such as student loans.

The following policies are also consistent with the bishops’ advocacy for compassionate immigration reform and with Catholic social teaching.

A perpetual Dream Act. The argument for providing a path to citizenship to persons who are brought to the United States as children and are raised within our communities is almost self-evident. They are “naturalized” in the sense that they gain all the attributes associated with U.S. nationality. To deport them as adults is tantamount to exile to a foreign country. But these observations will also be true of young people who grow up under these circumstances in the future. There will never come a time when it is just to deport “Dreamers.” The right to adjust status as specified by the Dream Act should be perpetually open to successive generations.

A path to citizenship for longtime undocumented immigrants. Persons who came to the United States as undocumented adults may not have as self-evident a case for legal status as Dreamers. Nevertheless, they may also become part of the fabric of a community over time; never allowing them to attain citizenship is a punishment out of proportion with the offense of unlawful entry. Catholic social teaching implies that such persons should be placed on a path to citizenship at some point, whether that is facilitated by a blanket adjustment accomplished periodically by legislative fiat or by removing legal barriers such as the “3- and 10-year bars” created in 1996 that make it nearly impossible for most undocumented immigrants in the United States to ever adjust their status.

Decoupling health, education and public safety from immigration status. The United States enables all young people to attend public schools from kindergarten through grade 12 regardless of immigration status. To not do so would be unduly punitive of the students and would damage society by creating groups of severely undereducated residents. The same can be said of matters such as prohibiting undocumented persons from purchasing health insurance policies on the public exchanges. This is inhumane but also prevents contributions to the common good, as it means that higher numbers of sick and injured persons will not seek care until they end up in emergency rooms. Similarly, while misunderstandings of the concept of “sanctuary cities” have created controversy, these cities allow undocumented immigrants to contribute to everyone’s safety by ensuring that they can report crimes to the police without fear of deportation. We must not seek to discourage immigration by compromising our health, education and public safety systems.

Catholic social teaching will disappoint those who seek a precise articulation of the limits of immigration. However, we can clearly articulate policies that promote the good for all of us.

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Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mark - count me as disappointed. Your article does not address most situations in any detail and if it was fully followed, it could generate humanitarian crises and cause profound dislocation of communities and at our borders. I say this as someone who is very pro-immigration and wants to welcome the stranger, but not create a system sure to hurt them and our communities. I support the DREAM act, and I am for finding practical and responsible ways to citizenship for non-criminal immigrants already well embedded into our society. I also want an economic safety net for everyone.

But, I do not want to set up an incentive system that plays into the hands of people traffickers. I do not want to rob weaker nations of their best and brightest. The legal immigration system should take into account the needs of the home country, its broader culture and the prospects of immigrants for assimilation and successful lives here. You mentioned nothing about criminals or terrorists entering our country. Do they have a right to acceptance, welfare and eventual citizenship? What about people who are found at the border? What about the capacity to accommodate and assimilate and provide is not there? What if the incoming population suddenly mushroomed to millions? What if it looked more like an invading army? Is your approach right for every nation? For example, what would happen to Ireland or Belgium if they permitted 5 million to enter in 2018? You do not mention if you support Canada's points system or if underpopulated states or nations (with low population densities) should take more people than already overcrowded nations.

America is the most welcoming nation in the world, having over 1M legal immigrants each year. It is also the most hardest hit by illegal immigration (?2M a year), and the latter has many negative consequences for the migrants as well as the nation. The sex trafficking industry and drug trade are two terrible consequences of a large illegal system. Canada, with as much land as the US, let's < 300k in a year. Mexico is particularly harsh on its inbound immigrants (so they pass through t o the USA). America does a much better job at assimilating immigrants than most countries, but, since JPII, I never hear much praise from the Vatican on how generous America is in this regard (anti-American bias, I say). Pope Francis seems to have carried this Latin American prejudice into the Vatican.

Natural law thinking should guide our policies. Prudential charity and a preferential option for the citizen at home should guide the immigration process. It seems anti-Christian to ignore security threats or to hurt job opportunities for our own poor. It is much better to assist people abroad in safe havens that tear them away from their people and bring them here. Most people will stay at home and we can help 10x more by not moving them (except for extreme emergencies, when refugees need to be accepted into our nation. Most nations (like Canada) have an immigration system biased toward the well educated and the rich, which America should also adopt, if only because it will help all Americans and not hurt the poor. Some less prudential Christians will disagree but I never hear them attack the Canadians (more American prejudice, I say).

So, my 10 suggestions: 1) No immigration from terrorist areas unless they can be reliably vetted; 2) Strict control of the borders and entry sites to stop the crime, sex and drug trafficking and any illegal immigration; 3) Increase migrant worker permits for critical occupations; 4) Have a points system that favors those with professions we need, and those who can pay their way and avoid welfare (like Canada and Australia); 5) Make basic proficiency in English part of the points system; 6) Make evidence of love for Americans part of the points system - no despiser of Americans should ever get in! Evidence of love includes verbal commitment, service jobs (e.g. military, police, healthcare, etc.) and other expressions of love for their new neighbors; 7) Require immigrants to locate in certain parts of the nation for temporary periods (say 1 year) if advantageous to the US - there are lost of under-populated areas and there should not be ghettos of immigrants in our cities; 8) Keep the support of family unification to the nuclear level only, but others if the family can prove they can pay for their support; 9) Continue America's great generosity to refugees but refocus it on helping them where they are at, if at all possible, as it is the most efficient and helps the most long-term; 10) Stop demagoguing this issue, including/especially Catholic leaders. Reconnect with the virtues of prudence.

Here are 5 things that have made it harder for the US to be welcoming in the last 50 years:
1. The Welfare State - which greatly increases the financial burden of immigrants and families
2. The weaker US culture - makes assimilation much harder, resulting in further cultural decay
3. Identity politics - while meant to build up, it works primarily by pulling down the non-group, creating resentment all around. This is a poison. We need to repeat that we are all in this together and no one should be counted or aided b/o skin color or other physical attribute.
4. Weaker Christian culture - as John Adams said (1798) "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." The less Christian America is, the weaker its culture and polity will be.
5. The rise of Jihadi violence. This has been a game changer, greatly changing the risk benefit relationship of the process. Security is the first job of the government. Fail that and nothing else can be achieved.

Randal Agostini
2 months 2 weeks ago

"the U.S. bishops make clear that contemporary Catholic thinking reverses the usual presuppositions that favor restrictions." I do not recall the debate that discussed a reversal on the views regarding "illegal immigration."
To put the discussion in perspective restricted immigration has long been the norm in most countries across the globe - and still exists for very legitimate reasons.
Unrestricted immigration can and will disrupt the social fabric of society, especially for those who are most vulnerable, requiring unfunded government assistance.
Unrestricted immigration may often cause serious complications in the culture of a country, preventing the normal assimilation of cultures, causing misunderstood and occasionally violent divisions.
Unrestricted immigration introduces a security risk for those with malicious intent entering a country without being vetted.
Christianity is supposed to be selfless, putting others before ourselves, but that does not presuppose a senseless pursuit of creating compassion.
I compliment the church for bringing awareness to the immigration problem, but most would rather the church be part of the debate, purely from a Christian, rather than a liberally political standpoint, especially if there are more victims than good samaritans could reasonably look after.

The United States has two land borders, one to the North and another to the south. The one to the north has never posed an unreasonable problem, because the country to the north has an immigration policy with limits. The border to the south has always been porous, acting as a sort of relief valve for an inferior Mexican economy. In recent years it has also become a conduit for nationals of other countries south and east of Mexico. In even more recent years it has been the favorable conduit for those intent on entering the United States without being detected. Mexico has not assisted the United Staes in maintaining a secure border, such as the one that exists between Canada and the USA. The truth is that Mexico has turned a blind eye to their undocumented emigration problem.

For the Church to suggest that Catholics must now show unlimited compassion to serve a political agenda is hypocritical. Catholics should be allowed to conform their compassion to their own conscience and choose whether they want to impose reasonable immigration restrictions in order to protect the country from a totally unrestricted and unregulated inundation of undocumented immigrants.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 2 weeks ago

"....Never allowing them[illegal aliens] to attain citizenship is a punishment out of proportion to the offense[felony] of unlawful entry".
While a statement such as this may demonstrate empathy, it also demonstrates a lack of any basic understanding of the purpose of creating laws prohibiting certain acts.
Skipping the fact that the author just ignores there is specified jail penalty for illegal entry, his suggestion that a refusal to grant citizenship to an illegal alien because it is out of proportion to his crime is to suggest that refusing to let a burglar keep his stolen goods is out of proportion to his crime.

I have yet to find a tract, article, or other statement by any bishop to the effect that Catholic Social Justice requires that an illegal alien must be given citizenship.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Kuczewski,

What country on the face of the earth has the policies which you say are implied by Catholic Social Teaching?

Which countries 100 years ago had these policies? Who was promoting these polices 100 years ago. If the answer is no countries and only marginal people, what has happened to Catholic Social teaching to change and who gets to decide what it is.

Why wasn't anything like this ever taught in Catholic schools?

In reality there is no obligation for a Catholic to endorse these policies as they would endorse the "living presence" or similar Catholic dogmas. This is just political activists trying to scare and shame Catholics into a certain political points of view. And political activists who have no concept of secondary and tertiary effects of their "do-gooder" ideas.

And a final question, who placed the word "believe" in the headline? The word does not exist in the article. I suspect it was an editor. Which means that the editors are driving this perception that we have to believe this nonsense.

Paul Sarbaugh
2 months 2 weeks ago

I feel to present the Church's teaching on this question as allowing no debate is often the case when the editors agree with the teaching in question.
When they do not, they maintain there is a plurality of views.

Vincent Gaglione
2 months 1 week ago

Part and parcel of so many comments for this article, as well as so many others about the immigration issue, often not expressed but implied, is the president’s emphasis on “extreme vetting” of immigrants, especially of those from nations undergoing violent upheavals.

This morning’s murder of about 50 people and the wounding of 200 in Las Vegas by a man named Stephen Paddock, described as not a “terrorist,” just another in a long line of homegrown rampages and acts of multiple murders, makes me really wonder whether the issue is really the immigrants. Perhaps we need that “extreme vetting” of USA citizens with unfettered access to extreme guns. Where exactly is the terror coming from here at home?

Just a passing thought while listening to the news after reading the comments here about immigration!

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