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.
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.