Immigration Is a Complex — and Divisive — Issue for Catholics

How to balance the welfare of immigrants and the common good of American society continues to pose a challenge.

Aerial view of the wall prototypes (c) and the new second line fencing (r) at the U.S.-Mexico border, as seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, Feb. 26. Last week, the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection said President Donald Trump’s border-wall prototypes are going to be torn down to make way for a second barrier separating California and Mexico.
Aerial view of the wall prototypes (c) and the new second line fencing (r) at the U.S.-Mexico border, as seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, Feb. 26. Last week, the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection said President Donald Trump’s border-wall prototypes are going to be torn down to make way for a second barrier separating California and Mexico. (photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — On Feb. 15, President Trump declared a national emergency to appropriate funds for the construction of a wall along the southern border of the United States. But the wall that he hopes will serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration has also become a fitting metaphor for how the impasse over immigration has divided the people in the United States — including Catholics.

A January 2019 poll conducted by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute highlighted these deep divisions. Overall, 58% of Americans oppose the building of the wall, and 41% support it, according to the PRRI poll, but there is a mirror-image partisan division, with Democrats opposed by an 80%-20% margin and Republicans supportive by an 80%-19% margin.

Among Catholics as a whole, 53% were opposed, while 45% supported the wall. But white Catholics supported it overall, by a 56%-44% margin, whereas Hispanic Catholics were opposed by 73%-27%.

Still, both sides of the debate on how best to address the tangle of issues involved in immigration policy agree that the current policy needs to be fixed. But disagreement about how that should happen continues to stand as a barrier to any true progress on the issue.

In a joint pastoral letter with Mexican bishops published in 2003, “Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope,” the U.S. bishops have taken a stance looking to the welfare of the immigrants framed within the context of the common good. These two elements — the welfare of the individual and ensuring the common good of the nation — have become in turn the common grammar of the debate over immigration reform, at least in Catholic circles.


Pope and President

But while the issues involved in immigration are complex, most positions on the topic tend to emphasize either one or the other principle.

Such was the case when, in declaring the national emergency for a border wall, President Trump appealed to the common good in stating his case for such a measure but also acknowledged the plight of those amassed at the nation’s southern border.

“The current situation at the southern border presents a border security and humanitarian crisis that threatens core national security interests and constitutes a national emergency,” he said.

On the same day that the president issued his declaration, Pope Francis was celebrating Mass at a migrant welcome center outside Rome. In his homily, as if in counterpoint to the president’s remarks, Francis urged the congregation to welcome migrants without fear, reported Vatican News.

“While recognizing that fear is legitimate,” the report stated, “Pope Francis said it can lead us to ‘give up encountering others and to raise barriers to defend ourselves.’ Instead, he continued, we are called to overcome our fear, knowing ‘the Lord does not abandon his people.’ ‘The encounter with the other,’ said the Pope, ‘is also an encounter with Christ … even if our eyes have difficulty recognizing him.’”


Catholic Teaching

Those Catholics advocating for immigration reform acknowledge that both elements are grounded in the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on immigration, articulated in Paragraph 2241, and must not only be recognized but also integrated into a fair and effective immigration policy. But because such policy is ultimately a prudential matter, Catholics of goodwill and in good conscience can disagree on how best to achieve such a policy.

As the Catechism states, on the one hand, there is an obligation for countries to care for immigrants that come into a foreign nation, especially if that nation is wealthy in created wealth and natural resources.

“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.” 

The Catechism also states that any immigration policy decided upon by a government must serve the common good of all involved, including the citizens of the host country.

“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.”


Border Care

As a bishop of a southern border diocese, Bishop Daniel Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, has seen the immigration crisis firsthand. Brownsville sponsors the Humanitarian Respite Center being built by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which has a temporary location while the permanent structure is constructed. The center seeks to serve the needs of immigrants coming across the border for work or asylum.

“Here in the valley, we have good cooperation at our respite center,” Bishop Flores told the Register. “Everyone who comes to the center is processed and vetted and has been given a court date to determine their status. In the meantime, we take care of them, feed them, make sure they have a place to sleep, help the mothers buy new shoes for their children. It’s all part of the human response to the crisis.”

As Bishop Flores sees it, the immigration problem can only be solved after the concerns for the individual and for the common good are addressed.

“We need to find a common language to speak about both the legitimate claims of sovereignty as a principle to be integrated into any immigration policy,” he said, “and the need to respond in charity and solidarity to someone who is in a dire situation. How do you account for both? We need to find that balance between these two principles.”

According to Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs in the Migration & Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the other bishops of the country recognize the importance of balancing these two principles, as well.

In fact, the right of nations to control their borders is one of five basic principles of migration policy that the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized in statements addressing the issue.

“The bishops recognize the right of nations to secure their borders, but that right comes with a responsibility,” Feasley told the Register. “Border-security laws need to be just and humanely implemented. They also need to be fair to the U.S. taxpayer.”


Other Options

But the border wall is not necessarily the first or best approach to striking the necessary balance, Feasley said.

“When we see billions of dollars for things like the wall, it is hard to talk about whether this is a humane solution or transparent to the U.S. taxpayer. There are other things that can be considered part of the element that can make us safe, such as increasing the number of judges, alternatives to detention and upgrading the infrastructure, putting pressure on the trade volumes that come through and can create avenues for drug and human trafficking.”

A solution to these problems in illegal immigration policy also can be found in an overhaul of legal immigration policy, said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic-based think tank in New York City.

 “There’s no kind of road map for moving ahead on reform, which is badly needed and would mitigate some of the undocumented entries,” he said. “But the key part to any solution is reform of legal immigration, a system that hasn’t been overhauled in 54 years.”

Everyone debating immigration policy agrees, Kerwin told the Register, that immigration enforcement is necessary.

“Immigration enforcement has been broadly supported and invested in over the course of 25-30 years in a bipartisan way,” he said. “If there’s been any common ground on immigration, it’s been on the need to enforce the law. It has been enforced, and it is being enforced with lots of resources behind it. But the wall is a convenient political symbol to enrage and polarize people. A lot of the nationalist sentiment, expressed by the president and his cabinet members and advisers, makes it difficult to think about the compromise that the U.S. bishops want and a lot of people want, which is broad reform.”


Security Concerns

Brian Burch is president of Catholic Vote, a lay-run advocacy group operating in Madison, Wisconsin, which offers guidance on political issues important to Catholics. According to Burch, Catholics find the complexity of the immigration issue difficult to navigate.

“The immigration issue presents a number of difficult questions for faithful Catholics,” Burch said. “There are certain moral goods that appear at times to be in conflict — that is, the obligation to welcome the stranger, the refugee or the disadvantaged person in search of a better life balanced against the requirement that just laws be upheld, that border and peace is maintained, and that the common good, including the goods and needs of sovereign states, is also served. Therefore, it is difficult sometimes for Catholics to reconcile what might appear to be competing goods.”

Based on Catholic Vote’s polling of Catholics in the past, Burch said that, on the immigration issue, border security was their primary concern as they went to the voting booth in 2016.

“From a political standpoint,” he said, “thinking practically of this issue, anyone genuinely interested in resolution of the immigration conflict in this country has to understand that until the border is secured and Americans have confidence that the government will enforce its existing laws, there will never be any meaningful immigration reform.”

Catholic writer John Zmirak, co-author of the recent The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration, agrees that immigration enforcement is essential — and that such enforcement must begin with border security. But it’s only a first step.

“The wall is a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to stop the new wave of caravans,” he told the Register. “According to Gallup, 147 million adults said they want to come to the U.S. Our border is broken, controlled by human-trafficking cartels that rape high percentages of women and girls. That’s unjust. It’s anarchy.”

The immigration issue is also very much a matter of the common good on a deeper level, Zmirak said.

“If we keep importing new clients for the welfare state and the programs our bishops’ nonprofits administer as federal contractors — paying 40% of the USCCB’s annual budget — one state will turn blue after another,” he said. “We’ll never again have a pro-life president, Supreme Court justice or Congress — nor one that defends religious liberty, our gun rights, or a decent, non-socialist economy.”


The Church’s Vital Role

Although he emphasizes other aspects of the debate, Bishop Flores also sees the political complications inherent to discerning the right path on the immigration issue.

“The current political climate is caught in a kind of time tunnel,” he said. “There’s reaction and counterreaction. The president does one thing and the Congress does another, or Congress does one thing and the president does another, back and forth and so on.”

But the Church, Bishop Flores said, must remain the voice of truth throughout the ongoing debate.

“As Christians we recognize that we are to deal with the person in front of us,” he said. “If someone comes to the door hungry, we give him something to eat, whether he’s here illegally or not. On a second level, we all recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and, ideally, different members of the government can work out an immigration policy with the spirit of give-and-take. The Church has the role of being the conscience — to not forget the poor, the defenseless — in whatever compromise is reached.”

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.