Immigration, Justice and Reality

EDITORIAL: It’s worth considering how some of the human realities related to immigration have changed in recent decades and how our laws and policies can better respond to them.

Haitian migrants cross the jungle of the Darien Gap, near Acandi, Choco department, Colombia, heading to Panama, on September 26, 2021, on their way trying to reach the US.
Haitian migrants cross the jungle of the Darien Gap, near Acandi, Choco department, Colombia, heading to Panama, on September 26, 2021, on their way trying to reach the US. (photo: Raul Arboleda / AFP/Getty)

The United States’ immigration system is broken. Our decades-long failure to both secure our borders and pursue just reforms in how we receive migrants has rendered our laws ineffectual and our policies inadequate. 

The Biden administration’s misleading rhetoric and inept implementation have certainly exacerbated the problem. But the recent encampment of 13,000 mostly Haitian immigrants along the southern border — and the record-breaking summer surge of immigration that preceded it — are only the latest instances of a broken system that has failed both the American people and those who seek a better life here.

Part of the brokenness of our laws stems from their failure to respond to changing circumstances, which are features of life this side of heaven. Human laws are not perfected ideals but are practical attempts at justice that must always be open to greater conformity with God’s law. One justification for legal reform, St. Thomas Aquinas notes, is changes in human conditions. It’s worth considering how some of the human realities related to immigration have changed in recent decades and how our laws and policies can better respond to them.

For one, globalization has dramatically changed the nature of our relationships with people in other parts of the world. Whereas someone like St. Thomas had little practical connection with someone across the seas, the reality for us today is quite different. For better or for worse, our lives are practically intertwined — culturally, economically, even politically — with people across the globe. 

We need to take this reality into account when determining our responsibilities and pursuing justice, as Pope Francis emphasizes in Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers). His predecessors have also insisted upon this. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for instance, wrote that “in an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family.”

Applied to immigration, this kind of solidarity means we should take seriously our duty to help those from other parts of the world live free of violence and poverty — especially considering America’s relative material prosperity, achieved through the globalized economy. 

While it’s true that too much of this wealth has been amassed by the super-rich at the expense of the American working class, this should compel us to address our domestic income inequality problems, not ignore the plight of others. For a country as prosperous as the U.S., choosing between taking care of our own and helping those from other places is a false choice. 

Acknowledging our interrelatedness is not a call for utopian, borderless nonsense, nor is it grounds for neglecting our most immediate responsibilities at home. Instead, it’s a call to embrace the responsibility that comes with being more fortunate than others. In fact, a significant step of immigration reform must be to address the factors that motivate people to leave their homeland, something the Biden administration has at least declared its willingness to tackle. But, as the Catechism says, we must also “welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” to the extent that we are able.

Immigration policies must also be evaluated based on their impact on the common good of the receiving country. The Church’s social teaching is quite clear that immigrants have a duty to respect their new country’s culture and to contribute to its communal life. Countries also have the right to consider how different peoples may or may not contribute to the common good — and to regulate immigration accordingly — precisely because they have the duty to ensure the security and well-being of their citizens.

But in too many cases, politicians and commentators speak about immigration in relation to a conception of American society that doesn’t exist. Ethnically, culturally and socially, America is not the same as it was 50 years ago, let alone as it was at its founding. And we respond to ideology, not the Gospel, when we use nostalgia instead of reality as our starting point for determining how to promote the common good today.

We can and should decry some of these changes — rising secularism, increasing decadence, and widespread denial of basic human truths. But this devolution is our own creation, not the product of immigration. 

In fact, immigrants to America tend to be more religious and socially conservative than their native-born counterparts. Additionally, immigrants to the U.S. generally integrate well into society, in part because America’s cultural foundation is rooted in political ideals, not inherent ethnic or historical ties. At a time when America suffers from a crisis of apathy, if not downright disdain, for its own values, we might ask ourselves if those who are willing to put their lives at risk to come to our country might actually contribute to, not diminish, our common good.

True justice also requires a reevaluation of the way we enforce and even punish illegal immigration. 

A nation certainly has a right to control its borders, to regulate the influx of immigrants, and apply punitive measures — including deportation — for those who enter illegally. But sometimes this enforcement is thought of in abstracted, non-realistic ways, especially in cases where someone has lived in the country for decades or entered the country when they were a minor. 

Deporting someone who has spent nearly their entire life in America — contributing to our communities, serving in our hospitals and military, paying many of our taxes — is an unjust application of the law because the punishment of uprooting someone’s life is not proportionate to their violation, which consists usually of taking up illegal residency by either overstaying a visa or by an authorized border crossing. Alternatives, such as fines or required service in recompense, as well as directing them through a sound process of attaining legalized status, are more reasonable and just ways to correct these situations. America missed its best chance at comprehensive immigration reform nearly 10 years ago, when a cross-the-aisle effort for comprehensive reform was sunk by partisan politics. The political climate today is far worse. 

The best thing American Catholics can do now is to avoid the polarization of party politics and the fearmongering of demagogues and instead serve as a leaven in our national discourse by calling for true justice for immigrants and the American people.

Even more than that, we can resist the temptation to political abstraction and find ways to respond to the very real call to serve immigrants in need who are in our country today. 

Our first question shouldn’t be “Where are you from?” but “How can I help?” as we follow the example of the Good Samaritan — and ultimately of Jesus Christ — in embracing all we encounter as our neighbors, worthy of love and dignity.