We have seen and heard in recent days a widely disparate response to the immigration debate, particularly in light of President Trump’s executive order halting people from certain countries from entering the United States for a period of 90-120 days and instituting an “extreme vetting” process for dealing with all immigrants and refugees moving forward. As we examine the issue in light of Church teaching, we see a number of competing rights, responsibilities and moral principles that point to its complexity.
The epitome of the Church’s teaching on immigration is found in paragraph 2241 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states: “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.” And the Catechism goes on to state that “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.” Clearly the Catechism envisions an orderly process of immigration, subject to legal requirements.
Jesus was clear about our obligations toward our neighbor. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Lord makes clear to the scholar of the law with whom he’s speaking that loving our neighbor even means caring for our enemy (see Lk 10:29-37). Jesus also speaks of a rich man who finds himself in Hades for failing to care for the poor man at his door (Lk 16:19-31). Moreover, Jesus tells us that when we fail to help “the least of these” we fail to care for Him (Mt 25:31-46). As Christians we must allow Jesus’ teaching to form our consciences and to guide our actions: Every human life is sacred and inviolable; we are brothers and sisters to one another; Christians are obliged to welcome those whose lives are in danger; the virtues of kindness, compassion, hospitality, generosity and love must always come into play in our interactions with others, especially those in need who seek our help. As Bishop Zubik, our diocesan bishop, stated recently: “American policies have always been rooted in compassion and justice. We cannot abandon those virtues now. They define us to the world. Some immigrants are quite literally fleeing for their lives. They are coming to America with their eyes on the lit torch of Lady Liberty. Let’s not extinguish that light when the world needs it the most.”
Most immigrants today come from developing nations that often have high unemployment, little or no basic health care and spotty access to potable water or nutritious food. Some are being persecuted for their religious or political beliefs and face imminent danger of death. Many immigrants come not to break our laws or because they want to leave their homeland and families. Rather, most immigrate to follow their God-given right to work, to food and to life. People have a right to search for those things if they cannot be found where they live.
The Church teaches, as well, that a society has the right and obligation to manage itself — and borders are an outgrowth of that responsibility. Law means little if there are no borders within which laws can be enforced. The maintenance of borders is an extension of the state’s obligation to the common good, and therefore borders are important. The Church teaches that immigrants have a moral obligation to respect the “material and spiritual heritage” of the welcoming nation and to obey its laws. This does not mean that immigrants may not bring their own distinctive cultural life with them as previous waves of immigrants have done throughout American history. But, rather, it means that immigrants may not impose their own culture or religious laws on a nation in such a way as to undermine that nation’s principles and values. Sadly, we live in a society today where there are enemies to our way of life, those who seek to do us harm. Acts of violence, hatred and terrorism that have taken many innocent human lives in many countries of the world, including our own, give us grave cause for concern. No one has a right to come to our country with the intention to do us harm. There is justification for carefully vetting or screening those who desire to come to insure that their intentions are good ones and not harmful. These are reasonable measures for any government to take as we face the challenges of our contemporary society.
In an interview published in Our Sunday Visitor, Bishop John Wester, Archbishop of Santa Fe and a prominent Church leader on immigration, said “Despite assertions to the contrary, the U.S. bishops do not support ‘open borders,’ but support generous, but reasonable, immigration policies that serve the common good.” He went on to state that the bishops’ vision for illegal aliens would be to “register them with the government, require them to pay a fine and any taxes owed, and require them to learn English and work as they wait for a chance for citizenship.” He stressed further that, in the mind of the bishops, “the lasting and humane solution to the challenge of illegal immigration” will come through addressing the economic root causes of migration, eliminating “push factors” like poverty and violence which compel people to migrate in the first place. This speaks to a moral imperative that as one of the greatest nations on earth, the United States of America must use its abundant resources, its powerful leadership, diplomatic prowess, and all the means it has to insure that other countries respect human rights, protect the dignity of every person, insure the freedom of religion for its citizens, and provide for the basic needs of every individual (adequate food, water, housing and employment).
Immigration is a complex issue indeed; which is why we look so intently to God for his grace and his wisdom to guide us forward. Catholic teaching calls us to be responsible and faithful citizens. We must pray for President Trump, his administration, and for all in public office that they may be led to embrace goodness and truth. We pray for our country and it citizens that we will always be people of compassion for others. We pray for immigrants and all those who seek to live with us in peace as citizens of our great country. May God continue to bless the United States of America!