Immigration: A Principled Catholic Approach Avoids Emotionalism

COMMENTARY: Church teaching on immigration articulates a framework for thinking — rather than merely emoting — through the immigration issue in a manner consistent with Catholic concerns for liberty, justice, human flourishing and the common good.

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For weeks now, Americans’ eyes have been fixated upon the humanitarian disaster unfolding on our southern border, as some of the least among us seek to enter the United States without permission from what is, after all, a sovereign nation.

We’ve also witnessed outpourings of raw fury as Americans, including many Catholics, vent their frustration with the federal government and Congress, due to the economic and political dysfunctionality bred by the failure of our immigration laws.

As tempting as it is, however, to express anger, Catholics cannot be in the business of allowing public policy to be driven by feelings. That’s at least partly because Catholicism has always taken reason deadly seriously. But we also have a rich tradition of teaching about political questions that embodies principles based upon the Gospel and the natural law: principles that lay Catholics have the primary responsibility, as Vatican II underscored, to apply to complex subjects such as immigration.

Catholic teaching on immigration contains many exhortations to be merciful. Indeed, the commandment to love our neighbor often means we’re required to go beyond the strict demands of justice, albeit not in ways that violate justice. At the same time, the Church articulates a framework for thinking — rather than merely emoting — through the immigration issue in a manner consistent with Catholic concerns for liberty, justice, human flourishing and the common good. And part of this involves affirming that there is a right — albeit not an unlimited right — to migrate.

For instance, Pope St. John Paul recognized several grounds for a right to migrate. One is to save our lives and those of our families from threats such as persecution, famine and war. Another is people’s responsibility to provide for themselves and their families. In his 1982 encyclical Laborem Exercens, for instance, John Paul stated that this sometimes means people must leave their homelands to seek better opportunities.

John Paul also maintained in another encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, that undue restrictions upon people’s capacity to exercise their right of economic initiative are legitimate grounds to seek places where there is greater freedom to actualize that right.

There is, however, a second dimension to Catholic teaching about immigration that results in considerable qualifications being attached to the right to migrate. Catholic teaching is quite attentive to the challenges that immigration creates for the host country. St. John Paul noted, for example, that “practicing [migration] indiscriminately may do harm and be detrimental to the common good of the community that receives the migrant.”

All these points have been reiterated many times, including in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by John Paul’s successor. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI indicated that, while Catholics should welcome migrants, they should also allow “the authorities responsible for public life to enforce the relevant laws held to be appropriate for a healthy coexistence.”

Six years later, Benedict was more explicit: “Every state has the right to regulate migration and to enact policies dictated by the general requirements of the common good, albeit always in safeguarding respect for the dignity of each human person.”

As a collective whole, these statements tell us several things. First, while there is a right to migrate, it isn’t absolute. The right to life and the right to migrate aren’t on the same level. The former is the foundation of the latter: not vice versa. Second, each nation’s government has the responsibility to formulate immigration policy so that it serves that country’s common good.

How, then, might these principles be cashed out in our current discussion? Regarding the immediate border situation, they suggest that those who enter the United States illegally but as genuine refugees should be welcomed and assisted. That indicates we need to be generous in helping these people and provide speedy and just ways to determine how long they can stay. In many instances, this may mean permanently.

Nevertheless, the same common good suggests that the United States shouldn’t encourage false expectations among potential migrants about their residence prospects. Nor is America obliged to admit those undocumented migrants who are criminals, terrorists — who patently aren’t interested in abiding by America’s laws — or who enter America with the primary intention of permanently accessing state welfare. This implies that border security should be equipped to ensure that such individuals can’t enter the United States in the first place.

These, however, are really intermediate measures for addressing the present crisis rather than long-term solutions. At a broader level, Catholics in the United States should examine the current laws that govern immigration and ask whether they embody the principles outlined above in a coherent way.

As soon as we begin trying to answer that question, it’s hard to avoid concluding that U.S. immigration laws are confused, contradictory, irregularly enforced and subject to conflicting judicial interpretation and constitutionally questionable executive orders. To that extent, they embody a serious rule of law problem that, as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles has stressed, must be part of America’s immigration conversation.

Currently, our immigration system makes it very hard to migrate legally to America and actually incentivizes people to enter America in violation of its laws. That’s the exact opposite of how our immigration policies should function.

To provide an economic example of the absurdity of this situation: Law-abiding American businesses needing highly skilled labor have to spend thousands of dollars (with no guarantee of success) to navigate potential migrants through America’s byzantine-like immigration regulations. Conversely, human traffickers make enormous sums from smuggling children across U.S. borders.

This dismal state of affairs, incidentally, isn’t an excuse for people to defy current law. No one can presume he’s entitled to break (or fail to enforce) a law simply because he personally considers it unjust. That would quickly render a country ungovernable and breed contempt for law.

Catholic moral teaching holds that outright disobedience to unjust laws is only admissible in certain conditions. In most instances, we must work to change such laws through the proper constitutional means.

Given America’s currently fractured political landscape, there’s little reason in the short term to expect the type of immigration reform that America desperately needs. But if Catholics are going to make a distinct contribution to the discussion, they should take their own tradition seriously. Among other things, that means insisting upon a repudiation of the naked emotivism and identity politics (one of the worst political diseases of our time) that corrupts public discussion of the issue.

Attention to reason, not wooly-minded feelings-babble, is one of the marks of Catholic faith.

In our current age, simply impressing that point upon our fellow Americans’ minds would unquestionably help America address its immigration conundrums in ways that reflect the truth of what we owe to both the wayfarer in distress as well as our country’s common good.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.