Church Teachings Provide Guidance About Complex Immigration Issue

The U.S. bishops repeatedly have advised that five Catholic principles should guide public policy in the area of immigration.

Vehicles wait to cross the Mexican border toward the United States at the Otay commercial crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on July 7. The presidential candidates differ on their approaches to border security and immigration.
Vehicles wait to cross the Mexican border toward the United States at the Otay commercial crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on July 7. The presidential candidates differ on their approaches to border security and immigration. (photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

The issue of immigration — a major factor in the November presidential election — may be complicated, but Church teachings also offer clear guidance to Catholics on how to evaluate the positions of the two main candidates for president. 

“The Bible speaks strongly and directly of welcoming the stranger,” said Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame. “The Old Testament is replete with admonitions to the Israelites to welcome the alien and the sojourner and offers the rationale that the Israelites were once aliens in Egypt until God delivered them. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his hearers that when they see the stranger, they see him and that their eternal salvation depends on welcoming this stranger.”

In the 20th century, papal encyclicals and bishops’ statements, up to the present with Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have reaffirmed this biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and have emphasized the right of persons to migrate to support themselves and their families. 

The right of sovereign nations to control their borders, and the right of persons to find opportunities in their homelands rather than being forced to emigrate, are also among the five Catholic principles that the U.S. bishops repeatedly have advised should guide public policy in the area of immigration. 

The most authoritative papal statement is the apostolic constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana, issued by Pope Pius XII in 1952. In it, the Pope outlines four key principles, according to David Upham, an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas. The first is that every state has the duty to receive immigrants “forced” to leave their own lands due to revolutions, unemployment or hunger. However, that duty is limited “wherever the ‘public wealth, considered very carefully,’ is inconsistent with such immigration,” Upham said. 

Pius XII also upholds the sovereignty of the state in making such determinations. It falls to Catholic citizens to “seek the passage of laws to receive more refugees,” Upham said.

Pope Pius XII’s teaching on immigration is reaffirmed and amplified in the USCCB’s 2000 statement, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.” 

“It is very difficult to know which candidate has the position most disposed to make the legislative changes suggested by the Holy Father,” Upham told the Register, adding that Biden “would be more disposed to endorse laws that would permit the entry of more refugees. But sadly, Congress is crippled with division that prevents any general and lawful change of the sort that Pius XII praised 70 years ago.” 

Another Catholic public-policy expert advises that care must be taken in how Catholic principles regarding immigration are applied. 

“A lot of people misapply principles like loving your neighbor … or seeing the face of Jesus in all others, especially those in need, as creating moral mandates in immigration policy that in practice mean letting everyone stay who wants to stay,” said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan institute that supports limited immigration. “But the Church also has a strong tradition of calling on its faithful to follow law and to take care of your own, which can be read to mean people in your community, your fellow citizens who are in need, and, like all policy issues, this is one where you have to balance the interests of those in other countries with the interests of people in our country who may be affected by immigration.”

For Catholics, choosing the right immigration policy involves a prudential weighing of these principles and applying them to the specific circumstances of the United States. “Immigration is a public-policy issue,” Vaughan said. “There are moral and ethical components to it, but there is no Catholic doctrine on immigration.”


Trump’s Track Record

As an incumbent, Trump is running on his record of strict immigration enforcement, while Biden has proposed undoing Trump’s executive orders and pushing for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has backed a similar version of such reform in the past. 

According to Philpott, Trump’s track record has “fallen woefully short of the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger,” according to Philpott. 

Philpott cites Trump’s ban on immigration from seven-majority Muslim countries. “Defenders of this ban insist that it is motivated by national security concerns, yet there are good reasons to believe that it was aimed at Muslims in order to appease voters who had just sent Trump to the White House,” Philpott said. “Most egregiously, the ban prevented accepting asylum seekers from Syria, where a civil war continued to rage and from where millions of refugees had fled.”

Criticisms that Trump’s ban was motivated by religious animus rather than security concerns were bolstered by analysis showing that most of the countries of origin for Muslim terrorists since Sept. 11 were not on the list. Also, three of the countries where Sept. 11 hijackers were from were excluded from the ban. The Trump administration has maintained that the ban was driven by security concerns, asserting that some of the banned countries didn’t cooperate with the United States on vetting travelers and failed to report terrorism-related activity. 

John White, a professor of political science at The Catholic University of America, suggested that Trump’s actions against Muslim immigration are inconsistent with the Church’s efforts to build relationships with people of other faiths, most notably Pope St. John Paul II and Jews and Pope Francis and Muslims. 

White also points to the U.S. Catholic Church’s track record of welcoming immigrants regardless of race or religion, whether it was Irish Catholics in the 19th century or Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s. 

American Catholic leaders also opposed the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted quotas on European immigration, favoring northern and western countries to the disadvantage of the southern and eastern areas, which had a different racial makeup and were more Catholic, according to White. 

That law was replaced with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which led to a diversity lottery system to bring immigrants from other countries underrepresented in the U.S. population. The lottery system was created during the Civil Rights era as part of an effort to make U.S. immigration laws less discriminatory. 

Last April, Trump suspended the diversity visas, but a federal judge recently ordered that the program be reinstituted.

Trump’s so-called Muslim ban likewise faced a series of court challenges and revisions before the third and final version was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. 


The Refugee Restrictions

One provision of Trump’s executive order on Muslim-nation immigrants was a ban on refugee admissions for 120 days. The refugee program has since resumed, but the Trump administration has progressively reduced the annual number of admissions from a high of 85,000 in 2016 to 30,000 last year and 18,000 this year — the lowest ever since the U.S. refugee program’s inception in 1980. 

Under the current law, the president has the discretion to decide how many refugees will be admitted up to a cap of 50,000, though that can be lifted under certain emergency conditions. 

While Trump has set the number below 50,000, Biden has proposed to raise it above 100,000 by invoking the emergency provisions of the law, according to Upham. “Biden’s disposition to admit more refugees seems more consistent with Catholic teaching,” Upham said. 

“Conversely, however, Trump’s approach, which emphasizes effective immigration-law enforcement, is more consistent with Church teaching, mainly by respecting sovereignty and especially the rule of law,” added Upham, who plans to vote for Trump. “Among the benefits of effective law enforcement is that it allows a political community to more effectively reserve limited immigration to bona-fide refugees — that is those truly forced from their homeland — as opposed to the many immigrants who might seek a better life but who can’t be said to have been chased out of their countries, the way the Holy Family had to flee Judea.”


Border Enforcement

In an effort to enhance enforcement, Trump campaigned in 2016 on building a border wall. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 307 miles of the wall have been constructed as of this September. (Some of that was where there already was a barrier erected under the previous Bush and Obama administrations.) 

Vaughan says Trump’s emphasis on border security is in line with Church teaching on the importance of enforcing and upholding the law. “It’s improving the safety and security of the border area. Illegal immigration is a criminal enterprise, carried out primarily by criminal smuggling organizations who are in cahoots with the Mexican cartels that control the land around our border with Mexico,” Vaughan said. “To the extent that the wall is able to reduce illegal immigration, it hampers the criminal activity of these transnational groups. It reduces human smuggling. It reduces drug and weapon smuggling and makes the border a safer place on both sides. And it respects the sovereignty of both the United States and Mexico.” 

Although Church teaching upholds the importance of enforcing the law, White there is still the question of how to enforce it. White, who has endorsed Biden, maintains that there are more effective ways to enforce border security through modern technology. There are also means of enforcement that are immoral. “When you’re separating parents from children, when you’re holding people in cages — all in the name of enforcement — that’s a problem, and that certainly is a problem from the Church standpoint,” White said. 

In 2018, the Trump administration announced a new zero-tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings, which are a misdemeanor for first offenses. Zero tolerance meant that even families with children were detained until their case could be heard — or, in some cases, their request for asylum could be prosecuted. However, a 1997 court ruling known as the Flores decision stipulated that children could not be held in detention centers for longer than 20 days, leading to the separation of children from their parents.  

“The Trump administration harshly amplified an existing U.S. policy that separates immigrant parents from their children, compounding a lack of compassion for immigrants with a compromise of the Catholic Church’s teaching that parents have a natural right to raise their children,” Philpott said. 

Trump later issued an executive order barring family separations; however, immigration advocates say the policy has continued in practice. 


DACA Recipients

Another area where immigration policy has intersected family considerations involves the “Dreamers,” or DACA recipients, which refers to children who were brought here illegally and were protected from deportation under an Obama-era program. (DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; the nickname Dreamers comes from the proposed measure to make Obama’s executive action a law.) 

In 2017, the Trump administration said it would be ending the program, leading to a series of legal challenges. The issues remained tied up in court until earlier this summer, when the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration.

Upham notes that the original DACA program was created when “President Obama unilaterally suspended certain immigration laws.” He says such executive activism would continue under Biden through his declaration of an “indefinite ‘emergency’” to bring in more than 50,000 refugees. 

“Such activism has various negative effects, not the least of which is that it greatly undermines the possibility of legislative reform,” Upham said. “Members of one political party have no good reason to compromise when their adversaries reserve to themselves the power, when in the presidency, to disregard the terms of any hard-fought compromise. Such executive activism, then, is hostile to the legislative, sovereignty-respecting reforms urged by the Catholic Church.” 

Philpott, who plans to vote for neither major candidate and is instead backing the American Solidarity Party, says Trump’s efforts to reverse DACA also run contrary to Church teaching. “The administration’s opposition to DACA is equally a failure to welcome the stranger. The idea is for children of parents who came here illegally to have certain advantages, such as a work permit,” Philpott said. “A failure to support the children compounds the administration’s blind eye towards the ‘least of these.’ Even better would be support for the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for these people.”

Beyond policy, Philpott says it’s important to also consider a candidate’s rhetoric. 

“In addition to his policies, the president’s rhetoric is demeaning and disparaging towards immigrants,” he said. “In 2016, he campaigned by stoking fears of crime committed by immigrants in order to mobilize a frenzy of hostility towards them. There is no sense of seeing Christ in those who are here working in menial jobs or who live in great danger or need across the border.”  

However, Philpott notes that past administrations, including the Obama administration of which Biden was a part, also have pursued policies hostile toward immigrants. In fact, arrests and deportations of unauthorized immigrants under the Trump administration remain substantially below the peak levels that occurred during Obama’s presidency, a March 2020 Pew Research Center report noted.

Said Philpott, “This shows that the problem and challenge of showing mercy and justice towards immigrants will not disappear if Trump leaves office.” 

Appearing in the Oct. 25 print edition, the Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty. Find coverage here: