A Catholic case for open borders

In the early 1960s, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wondered, “Is it a coincidence that the problem of identity holds a certain fascination at a time when man is closer than ever to becoming one human kind?”

By the “problem of identity” he meant the peculiar tendency for some groups of human beings to draw lines around themselves, to declare themselves superior to all others, as if they were a species of their own. Sure, this tendency is age-old. But why, he asked, does it become so fervent precisely when the general trajectory points toward a wider circle of humanity? Why did his native Germany burst into a genocidal rage during a time of such cultural and scientific ferment? Why, he might ask today, does the rise of the internet’s “global village” make us feel so polarized and divided? Why does the recognition of a planetary climate crisis accompany a proliferation of hardened, militarized border walls?

A war against the young—those whose prime years are still at the mercy of those in power—is being waged with these walls. The world’s refugee population is larger than it has ever been, and climate change promises to make it grow. Younger people voted against Brexit and against Donald J. Trump, who opened his presidential campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants. The young evidently see more to be gained from an interwoven world and see it as less of a choice; they know they could be the next climate refugees.

This fall, at the invitation of Pope Francis, young people from around the world will gather in Assisi, Italy, to share ideas about how they might “give a soul to the economy of tomorrow.” The very premise of such a gathering offers a reminder that an economy with a soul will depend on the right of mobility. How many people with something to contribute to this meeting have scant hope of getting there? The pope shined a light on Italy’s especially deadly borders when he took his first papal trip, in 2013, to the island of Lampedusa, where many thousands of drowned travelers from impoverished and war-torn countries have washed ashore.

“Those who build walls will become prisoners of the walls they put up,” he warned reporters last year.

There are many ways to be contained within the borders of our own making.

From the Great Firewall that divides China’s internet from the rest of the world to the detention centers imprisoning children along the U.S.-Mexico border, there are many ways to be contained within the borders of our own making—morally, physically and imaginatively. The towering concrete wall that runs through Bethlehem has made peace in that land more elusive. And the world’s governments have been building these things on a tear. Even as our economies become more connected, as networks transmit our voices and translate our languages, there have never been more walls than there are now.

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As more and more walls go up, so, too, the hoarding behind them increases. Reece Jones, a political geographer, points out that since the rise of nation-states, economic inequality has transformed from mainly a phenomenon within given societies to become vast gulfs between countries. Qataris enjoy a per-capita gross domestic product of $126,898, while for Burundians it is $744. Opportunity and even survival in the global economy depend profoundly upon which side of which border one is born on. Whole countries have become like vast debtors’ prisons—Yemen and Bangladesh, for instance, have among the world’s least useful passports, as they allow minimal visa-free travel. Such restrictions punish people for being poor, with no way out. When some try to circumvent such perverse circumstances they face intentional, mortal deterrents, from capsized boats at sea to guards who shoot to kill. These are, as the title of Mr. Jones’s excellent book puts it, “violent borders.”

Rather than a slur, open borders should be something to aspire toward.

Kristin E. Heyer, a theologian at Boston College, emphasizes the effects of border regimes on families who find themselves stretched across them. She has written in America, “Current policies that prevent immigrant workers from attaining or maintaining family unity treat them as economic units and do not recognize their full humanity.” The violence thus cascades across generations.

Meanwhile, the idea of “open borders” has become a slur—a way for conservatives to caricature liberals, who do not actually believe in open borders. (Barack Obama’s administration deported people at higher rates than President Trump’s.) Rather than a slur, open borders should be something to aspire toward. It is, in particular, an aspiration Christians cannot easily dismiss.

The Fallacy of Catholic Nationalism

It has become something of a fad lately to attempt the formidable task of articulating a coherent Catholic nationalism, apparently among those eager to reconcile their faith with Trumpism. It is indeed a heavy lift.

Published in First Things last year, the manifesto “Against the Dead Consensus” cautiously embraces the president thus: “We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny.” Imagine the most absurdly radical version of immediate border-abolition, the authors suggest, and perhaps Mr. Trump’s insults and walls and children in cages seem comparatively tolerable. I am not so sure.

Catholic Christianity is resolutely transnational.

Crisis magazine has offered a “Catholic case against open borders.” Its arguments hinge on expanding the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s narrow qualification of the obligation that governments “welcome the foreigner” by adding “to the extent they are able,” which would broaden the exception to the point that it starts to look like the rule. The American Conservative, in turn, takes a historical tack and contends that “Thomas Aquinas was no citizen of the world.” I find this a perplexing claim about an Italian who lived in Paris and risked his life to bring Latin Christianity into conversation with Greek, Muslim and Jewish philosophers. But yes, of course, he also taught that group identities exist and that proximity heightens our obligations to a neighbor.

Recall that, in addition to plain prejudice, the thing that most irked 19th-century Protestant Americans about Catholic immigrants was that they might hold transnational loyalties. Like most immigrants, they did—to their places of origin and in many cases indeed to Rome—alongside any commitment to their new home. We should wear that slander as a badge of honor. Catholic Christianity is resolutely transnational. It constantly negotiates local cultures with global unity and solidarity. It is a missionary church—now, often, with former mission fields re-evangelizing older dominions. When the church held sway across Europe, its polities were more like networks than countries. Nation-states were a consequence of the Reformation, part of a broader movement of enclosure that also fenced once-common pastures and forests, making creation more available for private accumulation.

I probably do not need to rehearse Jesus’ border crossings, but they turn up so often in my kids’ Bible stories that I am constantly reminded of them.

I probably do not need to rehearse Jesus’ border crossings, but they turn up so often in my kids’ Bible stories that I am constantly reminded of them. He is born the traveler for whom the inns have no room, then flees with his parents to Egypt for safety from mass murder, then wanders into Samaria and shocks his friends and the Samarians alike by treating the locals as fellow human beings. It is not cause for much surprise, then, that his early followers were described in a second-century Christian document as people who “live in their own countries as though they were only passing through” and for whom “any country can be their homeland.”

This kind of vagabonding was also the practice, centuries later, of St. Francis, whose memory brings the pope to Assisi for the upcoming event. St. Francis, too, traversed the Mediterranean world, even crossing the border lines of battle to visit the camp of Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. For the less mobile followers of St. Benedict, who vow stability to a single place, the injunction in their Rule is clear: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”

To the extent that this religion has served to justify colonial occupations and arbitrary “nation-building,” it has much border-drawing of its own to repent for. But one is hard-pressed to justify such activities the closer one comes to the heart of the faith.

In contrast to popular (and presidential) discourse, immigration provides host countries with a slew of benefits, from job market expansion to small business creation.

Alongside faith, reason offers its testimony. “Virtually all economists agree that immigration increases the wealth of the United States,” writes the prominent George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok. Mr. Tabarrok, whose politics lean right, advocates for radically open borders. In contrast to popular (and presidential) discourse, immigration provides host countries with a slew of benefits, from job market expansion to small business creation, and U.S. immigrants commit crimes at rates well below the crime rates of the native-born.

The chief arguments against freer migration, including among the aspiring Catholic nationalists, are grounded in people’s concerns about whether they can tolerate having neighbors different from themselves. “Diversity is a challenge,” writes James Kalb in Crisis Magazine. “Surely, then, multiplying challenges without a strong reason is a bad idea.” This is not a Christian argument, especially when desperate people are in need of help. Christians should be better than that.

“Public authorities,” we are told, “should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”

“In sharp contrast to dominant discourse,” Ms. Heyer writes, “sovereignty and hospitality are understood in the tradition to be mutually implicating.” If we are worthy of the power to self-govern, we need to be capable of learning to welcome.

Even the coarse legalism of the Catechism of the Catholic Church cannot help but reveal the tenderness of Christian hospitality. “Public authorities,” we are told, “should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”

More Welcome, Less Refusal

As on so many matters, Jesus did not provide a policy proposal or a plug-and-play politics. I do not claim he made any kind of injunction against all barriers to migration for all time. Nor does the church. Yet it does seem clear that both the church and its founder pose a challenge that points unmistakably in one direction: more welcome, less refusal. How can we be more hospitable than we previously thought possible? Yes, there are limits to our ability to meet any such challenge, but the limits should not be confused with the goal. How can we make a world in which it is easier to be welcoming?

For those of us who take seriously the teachings of the last couple of popes, we must also take seriously the dual crises of an economic system structurally deaf to the poor and a planetary ecology that we have damaged to the point of no return. Survival will increasingly mean migration. These are not times when a mere defense of good order and its accompanying border lines will do. Nor are these times when we can afford to be rash or utopian.

Survival will increasingly mean migration.

Forgive me for summarizing my proposal with a bit of jargon: Call it “migratory subsidiarity.” The migratory part simply recognizes that all living things on this planet share a common home, and just as birds and butterflies move to meet their needs, people may need to move as well. We have a planetary internet and a planetary climate—why not a planetary right of movement? Subsidiarity recalls the old idea in the Catholic tradition that governance should occur locally whenever possible. Local communities matter just as the whole planet does because they are universes of their own. Communities should have the power to self-determine who they are, what they value and how they welcome.

One could use other terms. Some of my hacker friends talk about “cosmo-localism”; the Zapatistas of southern Mexico speak of the “pluriverse,” a world that can contain many worlds within it. You could call the idea, simply, small-c catholic.

The German theologian Marianne Heimbach-Steins stresses that borders are “an anthropological necessity,” something human beings cannot avoid having in one way or another—and they are also necessarily porous. The questions of whether to have borders at all or whether they should be absolute are red herrings. There are more sensible questions. Which kinds of borders should matter most? What should they restrict and what should they permit? For instance, if one is concerned about cultural diversity as a consequence of migrating people, maybe the border should focus more on preserving cultures and less on containing people.

Economic and cultural flows can move largely unrestricted across borders, while human movements face much greater restrictions.

The current global order tends to work this way: Economic and cultural flows can move largely unrestricted across borders, while human movements face much greater restrictions. Raw materials, finished products, movies, emails and remittances flow back and forth over the U.S.-Mexico border while people can only peek through the fencing.

Migratory subsidiarity reverses that ordering. People can move, but local communities have more power to use their borders against colonial incursions from distant cultural and financial capitals. Communities have an obligation to welcome others in need, but they can do more to set the terms for how they welcome. They can deepen their distinctiveness and their connection to where they live, but they cannot treat the land as theirs alone. They can keep profiteers’ hands off indigenous ways of life learned from generations on that land, and they can expect newcomers to learn those ways, too. They can also choose to embrace the cultural diversity and the financial flows that migration generates. It is up to them.

We can begin changing what our borders are for.

All this would require adjusting some basic premises of the global economic and legal order—trade pacts, treaties, racialized sorting. The ubiquitous global corporations might need to give way to more democratic, cooperative business structures that combine global economies of scale with strong local control, diversity and autonomy. In the meantime, we can take small steps to practice our welcoming. We can begin changing what our borders are for.

This is a time when we need to be rethinking many things anyway. And the church has been demanding a reordering of the global social order for long enough. While on the subject of migration, in the 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” Pope John Paul II insisted that “capital should be at the service of labor and not labor at the service of capital.” He asked not just for a change of heart or tone; people must flow as freely as money does. His call requires turning back from the path of militant borderism with which many leaders have become enamored. But a change of tone would be a start.

During an earlier “law and order” presidency, in 1971, Pat Nixon, the first lady, inaugurated Border Field State Park in California, where the U.S.-Mexico border reaches the sea. “I hate to see a fence anywhere,” she said. After crossing the border line to greet Mexican children, she added, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too much longer.” What was then a few strands of barbed wire has become beams and fencing so thick one can barely see through them.

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