When Government Brutality Forces Emigration

For many people, the chief problem is not the inability to immigrate; it is the necessity to emigrate.

Louis Duveau, “Une Messe en Mer”, 1864
Louis Duveau, “Une Messe en Mer”, 1864 (photo: Public Domain)

It’s high time to condemn brutal foreign governments.          

For some time now, the debate over immigration has focused (in some circles, focused almost exclusively) on the moral duties of affluent nations to receive immigrants. Often lost in this discussion, however, is the prior moral duty of foreign governments to allow their citizens to live in peace and liberty. America is often excoriated and singled out as a heartless country that disallows immigrants; simultaneously, nations that terrorize their citizens, forcing them to emigrate, get a pass. In that telling, it is America—and not Venezuela, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Saudi Arabia —that is the foremost problem that needs to be addressed with the loudest and most passionate vigor.

Is that fair?

And I want to be clear: I’m talking here not about the criticism that does occur but is often compartmentalized in ideological or international specialist camps. I’m talking about those who (one hopes) genuinely care about immigrants, but who act as if the problem begins only when the person arrives on new shores, and who ignore the country-of-origin problems that often drive a person to risk his life in search of a better one.

However a Catholic wishes to apply the Catechism’s teachings on immigration, we should all be able to agree that brutal dictatorships—from which many immigrants are escaping—should be condemned. And brutal they are. From the state-supported sex-trafficking industry in Venezuela, to forced abortion and private property abuses in China, to the arbitrary imprisonment of Christians in Vietnam, to the beheading of Christians in Saudi Arabia, some governments have committed atrocities so gruesome that it would be hard to imagine how the devil himself could have inflicted more misery. Rather than promoting the common good, some of the governments of the planet are promoting the common evil.

Why aren’t we hearing more about this? Why aren’t dictators called out more for their cruelty and persecution? In light of everything else going on in the world, why has America’s border security (or Europe’s) become, for many, the reserved sin of global politics? Even if one opines that 45 million immigrants is far too few for America, why has America’s immigration policy become the maxima culpa of international statecraft?

The official teachings of the Church conclude that the greater the oppression in one’s home country, the greater one has a right to immigrate into another country. No doubt, there are millions of people desperately seeking to escape the ravages of Marxism in their home countries, who are desperately seeking a new nation. Thus, the desire for the highest number of immigrants is considered the most compassionate position.

While it is a praiseworthy action to help immigrants, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a prior charitable action is to assist those who wish to stay in their home countries in the first place. After all, the great majority of people from oppressed nations are not financially able or even permitted to leave their own nations due to the walls of all sorts that keep them imprisoned within their borders. We need to stand up for these suffering people. For two decades, Pope Saint John Paul II issued an annual series of statements for World Migration Day, and this was a familiar theme of his. For instance, in his 2004 Message, John Paul writes: “As regards immigrants and refugees, building conditions of peace means in practice being seriously committed to safeguarding first of all the right not to emigrate, that is, the right to live in peace and dignity in one's own country.”

Our compassion for those in other nations should not begin when they arrive at the borders of America. Rather, we should practice charity by demanding liberty and justice for the citizens of those nations. Much of that demand should take place on an international stage, on which they are called out to reform or be publicly condemned.

Pope Saint John Paul II urges us to come to the aid of foreigners by promoting and protecting their rights, and helping them live in peace in their own countries. On that point—helping those in other countries live in peace—America should be uniquely praised. Whether it has been on the beaches of Europe, in the jungles of Southeast Asia, or on the deserts of the Persian Gulf, generations of American men and women have gone overseas to help fight against totalitarianism in the hope of helping people gain liberty. Tens of millions of Americans have fought a violent enemy to help others live in peace.

However we may prefer to implement the teachings of the Catechism on immigration, it is important to recognize that, for many people, the chief problem is not the inability to immigrate; it is the necessity to emigrate. We Catholics have a long tradition of standing up for the voiceless. Right now, many of those who live under totalitarian regimes need a voice. We need to have the courage to speak loudly and clearly for them.

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta.

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