Commentary: The Catholic vision of just immigration reform

by JD Flynn

Denver, Colo., Jun 18, 2018 / 03:59 pm (CNA).- A Honduran woman says that federal immigration authorities took her daughter from her arms as she breastfed the child. When she reached out for her daughter, she says she was handcuffed; she stood powerless as her daughter was taken away.

The woman was in a detention center – a jail – in Texas. She was waiting to be prosecuted for illegal entry into the United States.

Her story, if true, is heart-wrenching. It cries out for justice.

Catholics see in every nursing mother an icon of our own mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who nursed the infant Jesus at her breast.

We see in the bond between mothers and their children a reminder of the life-giving and nurturing love of God, and see, in the family, the first means through which God’s love brings us into being, guides us, and protects us.

“You drew me forth from the womb,” the Psalmist wrote to the Lord, “made me safe at my mother’s breasts.”

We don’t know what happened after that Honduran girl was taken from her mother’s arms.

We don’t know if she was taken to a warehouse, to be housed with hundreds of other children who had been separated from their immigrant parents. We don’t know if she sat strapped in a car seat, squalling for her mother, near the the big kids who let themselves cry only as they fall asleep on gym mats spread across the floor, behind a chain link fence.

We do know that policies that indiscriminately separate children from their migrant parents at our national border violate the sacred sovereignty of families. They need to be stopped.

But it’s not enough to condemn the treatment of a mother separated from her child without asking what should happen instead. There have been, unfortunately, too few solutions proposed to address a real problem: how should the identity of families be verified at the border, to ensure that children are not being trafficked. That issues needs more than moralizing or grandstanding, it needs a real solution.

It’s also not enough to call for an end to family separation at the border without asking what led to this humanitarian crisis, and what kind of reforms will really make a difference.

For that reason, no matter how discouraged they are, Catholics need to lead efforts to develop comprehensive immigration reforms rooted in the principles of justice. Only serious reforms, which create a system that protects security and the right to migrate, will end humanitarian crises at the border, mass detentions and deportations, and the death of migrants crossing through the desert.

Among the principles of Catholic social teaching are five that seem particularly relevant to just immigration policy: That nations have a right to security; that families have the right to migrate for safety, freedom, or economic opportunity; that justice obliges countries who can receive immigrants without detriment to the welfare of their citizens to do so; that wealthy and stable nations ought to assist unstable and poor countries; and that the family is sacred, sovereign, and prior to the state.

The United States has the right to security: porous, unsafe, and uncontrolled borders do an injustice to those who cross them, and to our country’s citizens.

The United States also has the right to call on central and south American countries to reform their economies and to quell the violence and disorder that spur emigration. The United States has the means, and the obligation, to help those countries work for stability, and to hold them accountable when they do not.

But the United States also has the capacity to receive legally many more immigrants than we do now. We’re facing a labor shortage that won’t be resolved by the restrictive caps and quotas we now place on immigration, or by the byzantine processes that make waiting times for legal migration longer than people’s lifetimes. And importing labor also expands our tax base and our domestic consumer base. Those benefits outweigh the costs – measured in the provision of social services – associated with increased immigration.

Beyond the economic reasons for making it easier to come to this country are the moral reasons. We are a wealthy and safe nation. Poor people, from poor countries, have the right to migrate for work and security. Our wealth and safety will not be fatally compromised by their arrival. This is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. “The money you have hoarded,” St. Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century, “belongs to the poor.”

In 1948, Pope Pius XII wrote to the bishops of the United States. He said that he was “preoccupied” and following with “anxiety…those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.”

“The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people,” the pope wrote. “For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.”

Seventy years later, the pope’s words remain true, and important. The United States needs a program of immigration reform that recognizes our moral obligation to allow broader participation in our economy. Catholics must lead the way toward this reform.

We cannot hoard our prosperity. We cannot exaggerate our national sovereignty. Our land, our jobs, our prosperity itself exists primarily for the good of all. God did not make the land on which we live, or bless the country we call home, so that we could live in comfortable security while those outside our gates suffer violence, chaos, and hunger.

The rule of law matters – it’s not reasonable or safe to expect that law-breaking at the border should continue unabated, or go unnoticed. But the justice of our laws matter too: no one can call for would-be immigrants to follow our nation’s laws without being sure that those laws are just. Our laws, measured against the Church’s criteria, are not just.

Comprehensive immigration reform, though, will be a long-time coming. It will require statesmanship, sober reflection, and serious analysis – these are not things we have come to expect from our national leaders. That both parties have reprehensible records on this matter demonstrates just how difficult our task will be. But we have to work for just.

In the meantime, we need to insist that the sovereignty of the family is respected. There are times when parents and children should be separated – when parents have been abusive or neglectful, or when they pose a danger to their children or others. Adults who enter with this country with children should be scrutinized – for the sake of the children, we should ensure that those adults really are their parents, that the children are not being trafficked or abused. But we need to do this without taking children from the arms of their mothers, or sending toddlers to live in detention facilities.

Using family separation as a deterrent for migration is an intolerable and contemptible injustice.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Pius XII wrote, “living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”

Catholics are called to work for justice for the Honduran woman and her daughter, separated during the intimacy of nursing. We’re also called to work for a just system of migration to this country, to be its architects and champions. We are called, like Mary and Joseph, to be protectors of migrants, aliens, and refugees, especially those seeking peace as our neighbors.


This commentary reflects the opinions of the author, and does not necessarily reflect an editorial position of Catholic News Agency.


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  1. Flynn and his comrades continue to have an aversion to the legally accurate term illegal alien as well as the actual teaching of the Church on the subject of immigration. He makes no mention of the fact that many of these children are being used as pawns by people who are not their parents in an attempt to game the system and that an overwhelming percentage illegally entered the country unaccompanied. Shameful that he is attempting to enable both the commission of mortal sins – Seventh and Tenth Commandments – and violation of federal laws.

    “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.” Paragraph 2, Section 2241, Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis added)

  2. “We’re facing a labor shortage”

    Oh, really? Our unemployment figures say otherwise, and a constant flow if illegal aliens lowers the employment opportunities and the wages of our poorest citizens.

    “the restrictive caps and quotas we now place on immigration”

    We are allowed to limit the number of people allowed to enter the country, and it is only your opinion that we are not admitting enough. There are already quite a large number of unassimilated people here, and a destabilized country isn’t much help to anyone.

    “And importing labor also expands our tax base and our domestic consumer base. Those benefits outweigh the costs – measured in the provision of social services – associated with increased immigration.”

    I doubt very much that, if that is actually true at all, it applies to illegal immigrants. It is very disingenuous to conflate legal and illegal immigration, and since the latter is such a large problem the first step ought to be to secure our borders. Once we can be sure we know who is actually coming in perhaps the process can be streamlined, but meanwhile you can assign some blame to those who decide that their wants override our laws. Yeah, that’s the kind of person you want as citizens.

    “Poor people, from poor countries, have the right to migrate for work and security.”

    All of them, and all to the US?

    “Our wealth and safety will not be fatally compromised by their arrival.”

    How do you know? Look at some of the people who have tried to sneak into the country.

    “This is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. “The money you have hoarded,” St. Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century, “belongs to the poor.””

    We cannot fund the entire work or even the two Americas.

    I am glad that you made a fleeting acknowledgment that not all of the “families” attempting to cross the border are actually families. You don’t mention the large number of unaccompanied minors who do it, and your sweetly touching picture of the poor little things sobbing in the night ignores the fact that not a few of those poor weeping underage minors are in their late teens and gang members.

    • Sorry, I was typing on my phone and couldn’t see all of it.

      Should have been “We cannot fund the entire world” (not work)

  3. Yet another bleeding heart essay on illegals. Boo-hoo. This is me playing the world’s smallest violin. The woman with the baby knew EXACTLY what dangers she was subjecting her child to when she chose to come here illegally.In fact, she lucked out being separated from her child by US border agents. Her child is alive and unharmed, and both she and the child are now living free off of US taxpayers. Many a woman and child have been raped or killed by the coyotes being paid to smuggle them across the border.In fact I recall reading that some young Mexican girls are placed on birth control by their mothers while being smuggled because of this very situation. Some women/girls are gang raped. Others drown. I seem to recall the death toll among illegals is well over 1,000 since the Biden border travesty began only two years ago. The US is not responsible to take all in the worlds poor and ignorant, just because they want to come here. Too many of these people add nothing to the US as a nation and suck up an immense amount of cash using taxpayer funded facilities such as hospitals and schools and other social welfare programs like food stamps. To say nothing of those put up in $500 dollar a night hotel rooms in NYC at taxpayer expense. Who then trashed the place. This, while AMERICAN homeless fend for themselves. Since Biden took office an estimated 5 MILLION of these people have invaded our shores in two years. With no vetting. We dont know who they are, where they are, or their intentions. You can weep for one. Five million is an invasion.Period. Saying we need them as cheap labor is not an acceptable excuse. For in fact this is what suppresses wages here among American poor. After all, why pay $15 an hour if illegals line up for the work at $7 an hour? And how many of them work off the books? Saying the nation needs “immigration reform” is a red herring. What the Democrats mean when they say “reform” is to legalize any and all comers, for any reason. That is not reform, its capitulation to a leftist political platform. That’s what the left wants. No matter what it costs US Citizens, no matter how it depresses our own quality of life, no matter how it degrades our own culture and increases crime. It should be noted that not only Mexicans have come through the border. A virtual buffet of nationals from all over the world, including enemy nations, have filtered through the southern border. This includes numbers of TERRORISTS who have been caught. We cannot of course , know how many terrorists GOT AWAY. For the bleeding hearts who want to continue to see this strictly as a humanitarian crisis, I would suggest they smarten up and see it as REALLY is: a major national security crisis. Brought to you by the same benumbed administration minds who allowed an enemy spy balloon to float over the country for a week gathering intelligence, and only finally shot it down due to a public uproar. The only answer to this situation is to SHUT the border. And shut it for several years. DEPORT those here illegally, especially those who commit crimes. Get the problem under control. And stop pretending the majority are coming here for anything other than a free lunch and a better paying job. Maybe they should build up their own countries instead of coming here and sinking ours. The US is second to none in giving away foreign aid. We dont owe anyone outside our shores a single thing.Final thought:Democrats cannot be trusted to support AMERICAN interests on this issue. Be smarter next election.

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