What Should a Catholic believe about immigration?

There are a several misconception one encounters when discussing politics from a Catholic perspective.  A typical illustration is provided by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writing for America. You can see his piece entitled “I am a Catholic and don’t know what I’m supposed to believe about Immigration”, here


Actually In fairness I do not really quibble with his basic point, that there are Catholic principles supportive of less restrictive immigration in consideration of economically disadvantaged people attempting to immigrate, as well as principles that suggest nations have some duty to regulate immigration consistent with the common good of the host country.  How to resolve the tension between these principles is not obvious.  This is a good point and Mr. Emmanuel-Gobry deserves credit for clarifying it.  I think my major reservation is his failure to go further, and realize that there is no specifically “Catholic” solution to this kind of prudential judgment problem.  To the extent He merely wishes those advocating potential policy proposals explicitly indicate how they weigh the different moral considerations involved in addressing illegal immigration, I have no substantive disagreement with him.  Where I do have an issue is the implication that there is some sort of “Catholic” solution to the problem that a Catholic “needs” to believe.  There is not.



The problem of illegal immigration certainly would have some responses that are intrinsically immoral.  If we placed land mines and armed guards at the border and shot everyone coming in illegally that would be barbaric, and intrinsically immoral.  (Let’s leave aside for the moment that one could argue shooting some criminal elements that are a small but dangerous fraction of illegal immigrants, like the members of the brutal criminal gang M-13 would be defensible. The fact is however, no one is really advocating anything like this. The real political questions are:

  • How many immigrants to let in via what kind of process.
  • How to limit violations of our immigration laws and respond to those who manage to evade them regardless.
  • How to offer services to help and assimilate those people who are legally immigrating and those who illegally immigrated that we choose not to deport.



Unless you are a demagogue, a liberal Catholic Bishop or a left-wing Democrat seeking to create a permanent immigrant underclass permanently dependent on government largess thus likely to vote Democrat perpetually, you will concede that we cannot let in an infinite number of immigrants, so we must have some border security and some deportation.  That is unless you are going to abandon having a border, then clearly at least some, not all, or even most, but some people who choose to enter or stay in our country illegally need to be sent back to the country of origin, i.e. deported.  If We accept large number of individuals from a poor country like Mexico, who speak a foreign language, you will need to provide services to help assimilate them into the mainstream economy, and this will be a cost directly or indirectly paid by the existing citizens of the United States, some of whom might have limited ability to pay it, being relatively poor themselves.   Again this is self-evident, except to left-wing Democrats, liberal Catholic bishops in sympathy with them and demagogues.  (Perhaps I am being redundant and these are not truly three distinct groups, but this is a topic for another day…)



If we agree that the three bullet points above are the real political questions it is pretty clear that no one is proposing a solution that is intrinsically in violation of the natural law (Except maybe the left).   Any potential policy solutions to address immigration depend on the analysis of factual questions that few people on either side of the immigration debate seem to understand, or care to explicitly discuss. These include questions asking how many people our economy can absorb, at what rate, how best to provide services to the new immigrants, what kind of services they need and what is the cost of these services, not to mention how to pay for them. These must be viewed in light of what is driving the immigration and how those who motivated by economic desperation can be helped.  There are not specific “Catholic” answers to these questions, as they are essentially empirical questions dependent in part on the proper analysis of data.  An additional challenge is how the United States can identify the criminals and bad guys trying to ride in amid the tide of immigrants. This is not to say more than a small percentage of people leaving Mexico and crossing the Southern US border are criminals. We can concede it is a small number but this number is not zero and it is not without its consequences.  For example the extremely violent and in fact explicitly satanic  M-13 is heavily involved in illegal immigration, and human trafficking.  While overall illegal immigration seems to affect gross US crime statistics minimally, in particular instances, it is a factor in some kinds of crime. Certainly a reasonable government would need to address this.


At the end of the day the answers to these questions do not have a specific “Catholic” response.  While consideration of the basic principles involved (concern for the poor immigrants balanced by protection of the needs of its citizens) could be said to be the “Catholic” approach, the immigration policy that would result from balancing these considerations really depends on how you weigh the factual questions and balance the possible outcomes of any number of detailed policy proposals.  It is quite possible that very devout Catholics who are completely obedient to the magisterium would arrive at different policy proposals because they legitimately weigh the relevant factors and the real effect of competing policies differently.



To better understand this, consider the analogous situation of two Catholic physicians who are maternal-fetal obstetrics medical specialists treating a pregnant woman with a high risk pregnancy. As Catholics they must agree on certain principles taught by the Church, that they must do their best to protect the health of the mother and unborn child, and some potential solutions (direct abortion and killing of the unborn child) are inconsistent with these principles and thus immoral. Excluding direct abortion, what other specific medical treatments are the best options, might be judged differently depending on how the physicians weigh the medical facts and their individual assessments of the relative risks/benefits to the mother and unborn child. In fact there is really nothing “Catholic” about any of that. ( Even the immorality of direct abortion) The moral principles are not based on faith but on a proper understanding of the natural law accessible to all men through reason.  Similarly two very devout Catholic officials should align on the principles about illegal immigration. As already mentioned above We should be generous in considering the needs of those seeking to emigrate, especially the poor but that these need to be balanced against the needs of those who are already citizens.  These principles are essentially based on the natural law and not specific to Catholics.  Analogous to the situation with abortion in the case of high risk pregnancy (see above), some solutions would be obviously immoral, i.e. shooting illegal immigrants on sight, but  a great many other policies are perfectly defensible based on how you weigh specific facts that are subject to prudential judgment.  I do not know of any proposal that is explicitly incompatible with Catholicism except for those proposals that seem to be what the left-wing (including some Catholic Bishops) seems to favor: unrestricted illegal immigration with no regard for the real ability to assimilate or the downside consequences to the existing citizens of the US. This option would be not too much different from a father inviting an unlimited number of homeless people into his house without regard for the effect on his own family because he wanted to show “solidarity” to the poor. We would regard such a father as mad.



For my part The outline of a sensible approach does not seem all that difficult. It seems like a good idea to have a fairly permissive immigration policy.  I am from Italian immigrant stock myself, and think the evidence favors free market solutions including the free movement of goods and labor across borders as most likely to generate prosperity.  On the other hand We cannot let people just cross into the country at will, because it seems if we just allow “open borders” we are likely to both overwhelm social services and allow at least some folks like M-13 into the country.  So while encouraging of legal immigration, we need some serious attempts at border security.  Finally what to do about the 14 million people already here in violation of our immigration laws? Well how about this, we stop calling dishonestly calling them “undocumented” as if the problem was purely one of incorrect paperwork. They are immigrants here in violation of the law, that is they are here illegally, so by definition they are “illegal immigrants” as opposed to legal ones.  Nonetheless we are a generous nation and realize many of them violated the law out of ignorance or desperation, and as a practical matter we are not going to round up and deport millions of people, without turning the country into a police state. As a practical matter they are largely going to get some kind of amnesty.   But… they did violate the law so we can’t just wink and nod at this, for all kinds of reasons, including how manifestly unfair it would be to those who bothered to immigrate legally. There must be a disincentive to this kind of behavior and a reward for playing by the rules, so no citizenship and voting rights… permanent worker status perhaps or something like that… (Of course exceptions for things like military service earning the right to apply for citizenship etc could be considered). This sort of approach seems reasonable to me and violates no Catholic principle. I doubt the left would accept it since what they really want is a permanent underclass voting for liberal policies forever. ( That is why the left will never really alleviate poverty, in a sense to stay in power it needs poverty, but that is a topic for another day as well.) In any case the major concerns conservatives have about immigration (adequate security and assimilation of those who do immigrate.) are met by this approach


So lets agree that illegal immigration is a difficult problem, let’s agree on the principles that should be considered in addressing such a problem, but let’s not look for a specific “Catholic” response. I am not sure we could define it.


Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.



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