John C. Dollman, “The Immigrants’ Ship”, 1884 (Public Domain)
President Donald Trump recently tweeted: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really! . . . . .” This sent many political conservatives into a tizzy. In their view, the president’s tweet constituted a rejection of immigration law and a tacit endorsement of illegal immigration.
Considering the ethical complexity of the worldwide immigration dilemma, it is curious how reflexively one side dismisses the other on the issue. One side demonizes the other as monstrously unsympathetic, the other demeans opponents as having a callous disregard for law; both sides consider themselves acutely aware of the exact motivations of the other. How are we Catholics supposed to view this complex issue?
Pope Saint John Paul II grappled with this question during his papacy. In his 1996 Message for World Migration Day, he phrases it thus: “The Church acts in continuity with Christ's mission. In particular, she asks herself how to meet the needs, while respecting the law of those persons who are not allowed to remain in a national territory.” It is clear that Pope Saint John Paul II was neither an “open borders” nor “closed borders” polemicist. It is also important to remember that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated during his papacy, and it advises neither extreme. It recognizes both the potential right to immigrate (“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”) and the right of the government to regulate immigration (Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions…”).
In his Message, John Paul also urges us to remember—valid law notwithstanding—that the immigrant’s “irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.” The basic rights of both natives and immigrants come from God, not government; and they originate in justice, not in geography. The right to life, for instance, knows no border. A country has a right—indeed, a moral duty—to defend itself, but a country also has the moral duty—to the extent that it is able—to defend the right to life of those within its borders, however they arrived. As John Paul puts it:
Adequate protection should be guaranteed to those who, although they have fled from their countries for reasons unforeseen by international conventions, could indeed be seriously risking their life were they obliged to return to their homeland.
Pope Saint John Paul II then arrives at the crux of our current debate, addressing the question of children of illegal immigrants.
Here is the saint’s answer:
Thus it is important to help illegal migrants to complete the necessary administrative papers to obtain a residence permit. … This kind of effort should be made especially on behalf of those who, after a long stay, are so deeply rooted in the local society that returning to their country of origin would be tantamount to a form of reverse emigration, with serious consequences particularly for the children.
Many who disagree with President Trump’s tweet (and, presumably, Pope Saint John Paul II’s position on the matter) argue that America is a nation of laws, and, simply put, these laws must be enforced. But in this discussion and debate, it is important to remember that the greatest defender of law is not the one who defends its letter, it is the one who defends its spirit. As Scripture teaches: “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas composed a comprehensive treatise on law that has been respected and referenced by both Catholic and non-Catholic legal scholars for eight centuries. After explaining the divine origin of all valid human law and the profound duty of individuals and authorities to uphold law, Saint Thomas then—perhaps somewhat unexpectedly—explains that the letter of the law cannot, and should not, always be followed.
The spirit of immigration law is to protect the country as well as those who wish to peacefully immigrate. Both President Trump’s recent tweet and Pope Saint John Paul II’s above statement seem faithful to that spirit, taking a common good position in favor of allowing these children of illegal immigrants to remain in America, expressing that this benefits both America and immigrant.
One last point. With some of his recent actions and tweets regarding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), President Trump has been criticized from the right for disregarding the rule of law and from the left for failing to show mercy toward immigrants. However, by turning the issue back to Congress, which is—lest we forget—the legislative branch in America, he is taking seriously the need to respect the law and also to protect blameless immigrants. Whatever varied and fair criticisms of the president might be offered, both of these decisions should be applauded.