In recent days, scathing critiques of the Trump administration’s immigration policies have emanated from the Catholic episcopacy. It seems prudent, at this moment of maximum rhetoric, to step back from the fray and delineate certain first principles that can frame and guide a rational dialogue about immigration, particularly illegal immigration, from a Catholic perspective.
It is worth recognizing from the start that the Church is a truly cosmopolitan society. Its concern is all mankind, considered especially under the aspect of its common origin and end: that is, God. Unsurprisingly, its sensibilities are distinctly, even reflexively, universalist.
This tendency is only magnified by the Church’s great antiquity, which engenders a marked indifference to the fate of nations. Over the course of twenty centuries, she has watched many states come and go, many governments rise and fall. Indeed, her perspective is ultimately eternal, and the splendor of eternity, which reveals permanent truths, can sometimes obscure the exigencies of the temporal order.
None of this is meant to call into question the moral authority of the Church as voiced by the bishops: their persons should be reverenced, their opinions respected. It is rather meant to offer a clear-eyed assessment of the inclinations of the Catholic mind.
Can we then dismiss the Church’s approach to immigration as the mere epiphenomenon of its universalist prejudices? Of course not.
Its judgments are informed first by Scripture, which emphasizes the importance of hospitality to strangers. The Law and the Prophets both exhort love of the foreigner, extending to him the rights of the native Israelite, up to and including a stake in the Promised Land (cf. Lev. 19:34, Ez. 47:22-23). Such commandments probably reflect the fact that Israel was from the start a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38), yet they undeniably demonstrate a genuine spirit of xenophilia, predicated at base upon the expansive providential care of God for his image-bearers (cf. Deut. 10:18, Ps. 146:9).
The Church, in her teaching regarding immigration, draws also upon the insights of philosophy, especially the natural law tradition, as illumined by revelation. Here two truths are really pertinent. First, the earth is the common, pre-political inheritance of mankind. This fact, once admitted, effectively denies that the state possesses absolute dominion over its territory: thus it cannot justifiably exclude any and all sojourners without consideration of, and appeal to, other serious factors. Second, and relatedly, man is not only the citizen of a “particular State,” but also a citizen of the “world-wide fellowship of men” (Pacem in Terris, 25). He must therefore enjoy, to some degree, freedom of movement within this commonwealth of which he is a part by virtue of his nature.
From time to time, Catholics speak as if the aforementioned points represent all the relevant facts. Yet the Church also understands that the state “corresponds” to man’s nature: it is “necessary to him” (Catechism, 1882), for man’s flourishing requires peace, which the state secures by providing for the common defense and welfare. It therefore has the “right to regulate migration flows and to defend [its] own frontiers” (‘One Human Family,’ Benedict XVI).
In all her thinking on this matter, the Church links the state’s regulatory authority with its responsibilities for those already under its care (cf. Catechism, 2241). But why this default preference for the native over the alien? The answer is contained in a truth of inestimable importance: nature ordains, as it were, an order of love.
It is fitting that we should love some more than others, for we are closer to some than others, insofar as we share more or greater goods in common with some than others. For instance, with some men we share only a nature, while with others we share a nature and a city, while with yet others we share a nature, a city, and a family.
Where there is love, there is community. Where there is community, there is obligation: the obligation to cultivate the goods proper to that particular bond. We are therefore compelled to consider the social, political, and economic interests of our countrymen before considering those of outsiders with whom we have no civic friendship.
Note that although we consider first the interests of our countrymen, we do not consider their interests exclusively, without any concern for the interests of foreigners, who are at very least our fellow men. Note also that the interests of our countrymen are given priority only insofar as they are civic interests: interests conditioned by, arising from, or dependent upon membership in the commonwealth. Obviously, the nature of these interests may be broadly or narrowly construed, depending on ideological orientation. There is also the question of who exactly qualifies as a “countryman”: this, too, is subject to broad or narrow construal.
The question of immigration is complicated enough under the best circumstances. But the problem of mass migration, much of it illegal, in a globalized world of radical diversity, is thorny indeed. In the case of illegal immigration, a decision that is properly bilateral is made unilaterally, with the guest trampling upon the prerogatives of the host.
Recognizing the considerable economic and social strains induced by this phenomenon, St. John Paul II taught that “illegal immigration should be prevented,” ideally by solving the issue at its root through international development (‘The Church and Illegal Immigration,’ 2). In the same document, he concedes that sometimes, the best option for illegal immigrants is to “seek acceptance in other countries, or to return to their own country” (4). That said, he judiciously remarks that for deeply-embedded illegal immigrants, “returning to their country of origin would be tantamount to … reverse emigration,” a comment worthy of reflection as we reflect upon appropriate criteria for amnesty—and deportation.
What do these principles mean for the hot button policies currently dominating American political discourse? An honest observer must admit that it is not altogether clear at first blush. Plainly, a number of extreme positions, both liberal and conservative, are automatically excluded, but as for specific solutions, they need be teased out through careful deliberation.
The important thing is that these general precepts be identified and elucidated so that they can set the parameters of intelligent discourse and, once absorbed, yield firm conclusions that help achieve a balance between solidarity and sovereignty, attending to the dignity of the desperate without compromising the peace, prosperity, and cohesion of the American nation.
In the final analysis, what are we doing but weighing and measuring and arranging our various loves? Given the nature of this labor, we should hardly expect an easy task.