Immigration’s 2 Catholic Camps

Like everyone else in America, Catholics seem divided on the immigration debate.

Some Catholics support what many call the “Good Samaritan approach.” This position emphasizes the rights and dignity of the illegal immigrants over current U.S. immigration laws.

Good Samaritan Catholics believe that criminal prosecution and deportation do not offer a reasonable or humane solution to the illegal immigration dilemma. They point out that Americans should not forget that illegal immigrants pick the vegetables we eat, sew the clothes we wear and often build the homes we live in. These workers represent 5% of the United States workforce. Some view this fact as America’s complicity in the plight of illegal laborers and in many cases their exploitation.

To do nothing to defend the rights and dignity of illegal immigrants, argue Good Samaritan Catholics, would encourage the growth of a second-class population of non-citizens with limited rights and security.

This situation, they note, violates the common good of our nation by creating two societies: one visible with rights and another invisible without rights. Furthermore, they insist that our country cannot resolve the immigration crisis only through enforcement of the law. This, they believe, will only exacerbate the problem. As evidence, they point to the four-fold increase in border control funding over the last 12 years with the result of the illegal immigrant population quadrupling. They oppose any legislation that would turn these people into felons and would possibly criminalize acts of charity to help the illegal immigrants.

How do the Good Samaritans want to fix the immigration predicament? They support increased development in immigrant-sending countries; allowing illegal immigrants already here to earn the right to remain permanently through their work, good behavior and payment of a fine for breaking the law. Good Samaritans think this solution represents the most humane and reasonable approach to the immigration crisis.

However, enforcement Catholics — those who want to see anti-immigration laws tightened and applied — see the Good Samaritan position as neither reasonable nor truly compassionate.

To offer illegal immigrants some form of amnesty for breaking the law will only encourage more illegal immigration, say the enforcement Catholics. It’s like trying to put out a fire by tossing buckets of gasoline on it. It simply will not work.

Enforcement Catholics argue that true immigration reform begins by supporting existing laws, which justly guarantee the rights of everyone. The endorsement of lawlessness does not serve the common good of society.

Moreover, enforcement Catholics need not feel guilty for standing behind the law. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church, as a matter of public policy, does not support open borders or illegal immigration. The solution to illegal immigration is clear: Encourage people to obey the law by enforcing the law.

For Catholics weighting the merits of these two positions, the discerning question becomes: Which position stands on the high moral ground?

Let’s take a look first at the Good Samaritans’ moral argument.

They cite the natural right to immigrate as the moral justification for breaking U.S. immigration laws. This “natural right” originates from the fact that God provides the world and all its resources to meet the needs of all human beings. The Church calls this moral principle “the universal destination of goods.” In light of this moral principle, the Good Samaritans argue that prosperous countries should admit economic refugees, even at some sacrifice to their own living standards.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives some force to this argument by saying: “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 that 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” (No. 2241).

While this argument enjoys strong moral reasoning, it overlooks a higher moral principle that every nation must take into account: the common good.

The enforcement Catholics base their position on this moral principle, since the purpose of a just law is the common good. The Church recognizes every nation’s legitimate responsibility to promote the common good by denying admission to certain migrants and regulating the flow of others.

The right to immigrate is not absolute. The same Catechism passage makes this clear:

“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 immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.”

The common good of any nation consists of three principles: respect for the person, social well-being and development, and peace.

Illegal Immigration or a lax immigration policy walks over these principles. Here’s how: Illegal immigrants work for less, not because their work is less valuable than other workers’, but because they need the work. This creates an inequitable situation. Employing them to save money unjustly deprives them of the money saved. Paying them off the books also goes against just labor laws and wrongly deprives society of tax revenue. Moreover, hiring illegal immigrants is unjust to legal immigrants and citizens who need jobs.

All of this hurts the common good.

Then there’s the issue of national security. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it’s evident that we must secure our borders. In short, illegal immigration or a type of amnesty that encourages illegal immigration is morally unjustifiable.

Enforcing the law and asking people to obey the law isn’t mean or heartless, but charity in its truest sense.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair

is a theology professor

at Mater Ecclesiae College

in Greenville, Rhode Island.