Navigating the Thorny Thicket of Immigration

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: What does the Church teach about migration and the common good?

A segment of the border between the U.S. and Mexico
A segment of the border between the U.S. and Mexico (photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Q. The Catholic voice on immigration seems to me one-sided: bishops suggesting canonical penalties on Catholic border control personnel, pastoral visits to the border to support illegal immigrants, constant speaking out against efforts to seal the border; but nobody speaking up for being law-abiding.

I agree that parents and young children shouldn’t be separated, but isn’t the issue more complicated than what the news reports of Time magazine and its sister publications would leave us to believe?

A. In their joint pastoral letter on immigration, the U.S. and Mexican bishops propose five moral principles they say summarize the Catholic teaching on migration. They are:

1. People have a right to migrate in order to support themselves and their families.

2. People have a right to find opportunities in their homeland (i.e., they have a right not to migrate).

3. Sovereign nations have a right to control their borders.
4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.

5. The dignity and rights of all migrants, including illegal migrants, should be respected (33-38).

Notice the third point. Catholic teaching repeatedly asserts that it is within the rightful competence of properly constituted public authority to regulate who and how many are let into one’s country.

But how can peoples have a right to migrate and nations have a right to control their borders? Aren’t these teachings in conflict? No. They complement each other inasmuch as both rights are limited by the concrete needs of the common good.

Don’t be turned off by the term “common good.” It’s actually one of the most important concepts in all of Catholic moral theology, although it is often poorly understood. Facile commentators sometimes imply it means a civic state of affairs where citizens receive everything for free — education, health care, home loans, anything you want — and open borders to boot.

This is obviously a gross caricature of Catholic teaching.


The Common Good

The term refers to the true good of people in community, both as individuals and as communities. In ethics, “good” means that which fulfills. Human good means that which fulfills human nature. Human nature is complex and can be fulfilled in many different ways. Our bodily life is fulfilled by health; our rational life by knowledge of truth; our relational nature by various forms of friendship; and our capacity for transcendence by friendship with God. The common good then refers to the fulfillments of all these human goods.

But it also and necessarily refers to properly communal or shared goods, goods that exist only as a function of people existing in community — for example, common language, shared national memory, a just and functional legal system and respect for the rule of law, a free and fair economy, a common trust of political authority, traditions of shared moral values, neighborliness, and a positive attitude towards the community’s future.

Where these human and shared goods are lacking or attacked, people’s willingness and even ability to pursue for themselves ends that allow for their and their local communities’ fulfillments — through educating their children, affordable health care and housing, gainful employment, investment of resources, risk-taking and communal self-sacrifice; their motive to remain law-abiding even when illegality promises benefits; their love of neighbor and pride in their country — all these diminish and weaken.

Without them, a nation ceases to be a people. It becomes more an aggregate of individuals cohabiting in some territory, segregated by narrow shared interests like race, ethnicity, wealth (poverty), or blue-state/red-state values, but simultaneously characterized by partisan mistrust and sometimes hatred of those outside the enclave, a loathing of government, and a deadness to the needs of those who don’t share the worldview. We consider ourselves “good people” and everyone else as squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinners. Neighborliness withers like dead fruit on a vine, and we retreat into our secret and self-contained worlds, “solitary as old oysters,” to paraphrase Dickens.

Government, therefore, has a grave and singular responsibility for promoting the common good. This does not mean it’s the government’s responsibility to heal me, feed me, educate me, employ me, choose what shoes I buy, and tell me what to believe. That’s called a communist state. No, good government rather attends to the “conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (Gaudium et Spes, 26; also 74).

Notice we said “conditions” of social life. These conditions exist in four areas: the political, juridical, economic and cultural spheres, according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (166-170). The government’s duty is to protect these spheres, to privilege social conditions that enable people to pursue healthful objects, and to disadvantage conditions that make self- or neighbor-destroying activities easier and more attractive.



These shared goods are especially at stake with the problem of immigration. Perhaps the most important factor for successful immigration is not the relative wealth of the citizenry into which people are immigrating. It is the ability of the host community to assimilate migrants successfully into their community. For if they cannot be assimilated, the shared goods of which we spoke can be lost.

If too many people cannot speak the national language, we lose the ability to easily communicate and so be communal. Since migrants usually do not share national memory, they have to be integrated slowly and deliberately into the host community so their positive communal sentiments may gradually expand to include their new country.

If they enter uncontrolled and in great numbers, assimilation is delayed, sometimes for decades. If they spurn the laws protecting national borders, they enter with a presumption against the rule of law.

Illegality forces them into the shadows, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, disrupts the legal job market and wage system for low-skilled workers, which harms the national economy. Honesty gets disadvantaged; illegality, cronyism and corruption get privileged. Bad people from the host country incentivize illegality and make lots of money off the migrants’ backs, while incurring no punishment for undermining their own country’s welfare. All begin to lose trust in government. Neighborliness breaks down and people feel bleak about the future. Look familiar?

The tolerated out-of-control illegal immigration of the last 40 years has been a disaster for the national common good, and a grotesque abdication of political responsibility. Millions of entering people have been taught by the government’s turning-a-blind-eye that the rule of law in this case (wink wink) is not all that important. Powerful people on our side of the border don’t care a spit for the illegal migrants, most of whom are decent and well-motivated people.

And then when it suits the politicians, some cry “Deportation!” others cry “Foul! Let them all stay.” Decent politicians are faced with the solomonic choice of deporting millions or naturalizing numbers that cannot possibly be assimilated healthfully into our communities.


Weakness of Catholic Teaching on Immigration

Church teaching on immigration for all its strengths has one great weakness: its one-sidedness. It admirably highlights and carefully elaborates the needs — the personal and communal goods — of migrants and the duties of wealthier host countries. But it pays mere lip-service to Principle 3 above.

If one reads everything the Church has taught on migration for the last 70 years, one finds very little warrant for opposing a policy of open borders to all who wish to enter another country to improve their lives.

But an open-border policy would spell the end of the host nation as “one nation, indivisible.” Instead the nation would be nothing more than an aggregate of disunified groups hemmed by a geographical border.

People want to come to the U.S. because of the community it is (or once was) — prosperous, unified, tolerant, welcoming but insistent that new members become Americans, learn the language and history, uphold the law, contribute to its moral culture, and work hard to make her great.

Church leaders and teachers would increase their credibility if they balanced their teachings on immigration with lucid and frank considerations of the needs and goods at stake for the preservation of the common good of host countries.


Ecclesial Texts on Migration