Immigration, Patriotism and the Common Good

Fox News was kind enough to publish a commentary by me and my co-author, Jason Jones, where we wrote:

“Today we face a moral and political crisis on our borders, where the well-being and even the lives of innocent children are endangered, along with the principles of national sovereignty and public order. Responses across the political spectrum have been at best bumbling, and at worst profoundly cynical.”

We must be completely blunt about the real-world, often-selfish interests that underlie the public positions presented on this issue. In the spirit of St. Augustine, who candidly called pagan Roman rulers “a band of robbers” who had robed themselves in law, let me call out each of the groups contending for power over America’s immigration laws, who jointly have created the present gridlock.

Each group, of course, contains idealistic people who believe sincerely in the rhetoric they use. But the stakes for which each fights are starkly real and ought to be kept in mind whenever you read their hand-wringing press releases. We must be “wise as serpents.”

1. The multiculturalist left. This group considers white America predatory, the heirs of slave owners and Indian-killers, and it wants to see America’s cultural majority diluted and then reduced to a resented, once-dominant class — like the embattled whites of South Africa.

2. The Democratic Party and its allies. The party of big government can only stand to gain by the influx of poor, uneducated people whose votes it feels sure it can buy with the promise of generous government programs.

3. The cheap labor lobby. The restaurant and construction industries rely heavily on illegal labor. An immigration amnesty might move some of their workers out of the shadows — but these would quickly be replaced by the next wave of illegal entrants, attracted by the prospect of the next amnesty down the road.

4. Churches that cannot successfully pass along the faith to native-born Americans that wish to fill their pews for a single generation with new immigrants — whose children will likewise (studies suggest) quickly leave for other religions or none. No doubt there are genuine humanitarian impulses at work among such leaders as well, but since they are fallen like the rest of us, it wouldn’t be honest to dismiss institutional self-interest as a motive.

5. Social conservatives who seek to escape the stigma that comes with being pro-marriage or pro-life by embracing a position that proves their “openness.”

On the opposite side of the immigration issue, there are also groups with motives that deserve to be exposed:

1. Genuinely racist whites who find the presence of other races physically repulsive, who resent hearing languages other than English.

2. Population pessimists who think that there are already too many Americans and who fear that newcomers will have too many babies.

3. Selfish upper-middle-class people who resent paying taxes to support fellow Americans in genuine need, who would gladly deport the native-born poor if they could. They prefer paying workers “off the books” and sending them when they are injured to the public emergency ward.

4. Cynical politicians who want neither to secure the U.S. border nor to regularize the status of illegal immigrants who already live here. They are happy to have those people here working cheaply, as long as they cannot vote.

Of course, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle of this debate and have mixed reactions to the immigration debate. But the policy options they are offered are mostly driven by the “hard-core” proponents on opposite sides of the debate.

Knowing all this, is there some reasonable compromise that Catholics can embrace that honors the real moral principles at stake?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the only binding authority here, is concise and balanced on those principles:
“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. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. 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, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens” (2241).

In a previous piece, I parsed what the Catechism has to say, line by line. Let me sum it up here: People have a genuine right to switch countries when they are unsafe or cannot find “means of livelihood.” The Catechism says nothing about mere economic betterment; I would live better in Switzerland, but that does not mean that the Swiss owe me citizenship. Only the prospect of grave physical danger or the inability to live and raise children grants a right of immigration. Even then, this right is not absolute, but is subject to the “common good” of the receiving countries.

Part of that common good which immigrants must respect, as a condition of exercising the right to enter a country, is to “respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”

How many illegal immigrants to the U.S. faced death or starvation in their home countries? (Those who did deserve “refugee” status.) How many immigrants — especially uneducated people, entering a country with shrinking opportunities for its own less-skilled citizens — ought to be admitted to America in accord with the “common good?”

This is a subject for debate about what is prudent, with special attention to the effect of immigration on the poorest Americans.

Are people who have entered our country against its best efforts and who work here in fact “obey[ing] its laws”? Clearly not: They are violating its immigration and labor laws, and many of them commit identity theft as part of working here illegally. Therefore, according to the criteria laid out in the Catechism, by failing in the responsibility that comes along with their right, they have forfeited it. (Just so, a worker who did not do his job would lose his right to a just wage.) Strict justice for such immigrants would mean deportation.

But we want to be merciful, where we can, while protecting the common good. And it is surely imprudent to deport 12 million people. It is equally imprudent to grant those people amnesty while the U.S. borders are still insecure — since doing so would surely invite yet another influx. Even the rumor of possible amnesty goaded thousands of parents to dump their children across our borders. Every child who dies in the desert is a victim of those rumors.

A sane solution, which respects the common good and the human dignity of immigrants, would entail both border security and a measure of mercy. First, we must complete a border fence and make mandatory the strict enforcement of workplace verification for workers. We must track visitors who overstay their visas and swiftly remove them. Lawmakers have proposed workable plans for enacting all these reforms — which have been obstructed and sidelined by proponents of unconditional amnesty.

If we put such firm policies in place, and made their enforcement well known to potential immigrants, it would then be safe to grant some legal status to current illegal residents. Rashly extending amnesty without border security would lead thousands more to die in the desert — and extend the problem of illegal immigration indefinitely into the future. We would simply be kicking the can down the road to our grandchildren, as we do when we load up on deficits that they will have to pay back.

Of course, crafting such a “grand compromise” on the intensely emotional subject of immigration, where so many hidden motives underlie the noble phrases invoked by leaders on every side, will demand humility, courage and a strong grasp of the real moral principles at stake. We must dismiss the instincts of tribalism on both sides of the issue and work together for the common good of the country. That is our duty as patriotic citizens who are grateful for all that our nation has given us, who know that love of neighbor demands the practice of thoughtful, active citizenship.

Our ancestors used to make sacrifices for the sake of their descendants. We have learned to make things easy for ourselves at the expense of the next generation — just one more symptom of the “culture of death.”

John Zmirak is co-author, most recently, of
The Race to Save Our Century:
Five Core Principles to Promote Peace,

Freedom and a Culture of Life.