Part 3: Immigration
By Marian Friedrichs (Feb 29, 2016)
The following is the third in our series on Catholic social teaching.
There has been much spirited discussion lately of walls and bridges: of which image (or perhaps some combination of the two) properly represents a Christian perspective on immigration. The Bible commands us to shelter the homeless and welcome the stranger, but is it ever acceptable to close our doors to newcomers? Does the Lord expect us to give the green light to everyone wishing to cross our borders, or should our liberality be tempered by prudence?
In the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites, "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev 19:33-34). In the New Testament, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that Heaven takes a keen interest in their treatment of wanderers: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb 13:2).
The Lord Himself, who had "nowhere to lay His head" (Mt 8:20) warned that even after ascending His throne in Heaven, He would take personally anything done to one seeking shelter on earth: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35). And in our modern age, Pope St. John Paul II asked, "How can the baptized claim to welcome Christ if they close the door to the foreigner who comes knocking?" (Message of the Holy Father for the World Migration Day 2000).
On the other hand, no country in the world, even the most affluent, has unlimited resources — including available employment — and it is possible for even the wealthiest land to become overwhelmed by a too-concentrated population. God created a bountiful planet and intended all of its habitable regions, not only select areas, to be filled with human life.
To help Catholics understand the Church's perspective, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has compiled a list of "three basic principles of Catholic social teaching on immigration": First, "people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families"; second, "a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration"; and third, "a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy" ("Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples," see usccb.org).
The first and second principles may seem fundamentally at odds with each other, but they are not when viewed through a truly Catholic lens. The essence of Catholic teaching on immigration extends — as does all Catholic thought on social justice and morality — from the concept of human dignity. The native and the immigrant are equal in dignity, and where the dignity of either is threatened, each has the right to use any moral means to rectify that injustice and to call upon the aid of people of good will in doing so. That means that when a downtrodden soul comes knocking at a neighbor's door, that neighbor has the obligation to open the door and give him as much help as possible. When, however, the neighbor is honestly unable to welcome his poor brother inside, his obligation does not disappear: He is bound to do whatever he can to help that brother find relief elsewhere.
In his message for World Migration Day in 2000, Pope St. John Paul II reminded the world's citizens that most immigration is not a capricious or pleasure-seeking adventure but, rather, an act of desperation on the part of "men and women, often young, who have no alternative than to leave their own country to venture into the unknown." Frequently, however, "the reality they find in host nations is ... a source of further disappointment." And is this disappointment the inevitable result of the host nation's depletion of resources? Sometimes, yes, but too often it is simply the manifestation of "a public opinion disturbed by inconveniences that accompany ... immigration."
As citizens of various nations argue about who should be allowed to share their country and under what terms, the USCCB has this to say: "The native does not have superior rights over the immigrant. Before God all are equal; the earth was given by God to all. When a person cannot achieve a meaningful life in his or her own land, that person has the right to move." He has the right to seek domicile in a place that can provide him with the means to build a life worthy of his human dignity. Natives of more comfortable societies, however, do not have the right to force him to live in fear and want simply because we prefer to keep our lands to ourselves. Rather, even in cases when immigration must be restricted, "a sincere commitment to the needs of all must prevail."
The American bishops continue, "While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life are jeopardized." And it must be added that no country has the duty to receive immigrants who would jeopardize its safety. If a country has reliable information that an individual wishes to enter the country with evil intentions, of course that country's government is obligated to turn that person away in order to protect the innocent.
This disturbing exception aside, a nation's refusal to well-intentioned would-be immigrants cannot be its final word. Every nation at all times should do what it can "to make it unnecessary for people to leave their own land": to prevent that desperation that Pope St. John Paul II described. In other words, if the bridge we extend to migrating people cannot be a bridge of welcome, it must always be a bridge of genuine concern that proves itself in our constant efforts to help make other lands suitable places to live in plenty and peace. Now, as in the earliest days of humanity, the answer to the ancient question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9) is yes.
And when we do encounter the immigrants among us, whatever their status, God's standards for our treatment of them are clear. "While we do not neglect whatever material assistance is permitted," Pope Pius XII wrote in the apostolic constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana, "we seek primarily to aid them with spiritual consolation" — seeing in these wandering ones the Holy Family, weary and exiled; remembering that they, too, are beloved of the Lord, who notices the fall of every sparrow, and who promised His friends, "Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me" (Mt 10:40).
View past articles from this series.