In the wake of President Donald Trump’s policies and statements regarding immigration reform, the country’s response is just as divided as during the election, and many people have questions and concerns. And while nothing has actually been enforced yet, the media’s overblown lens coupled with the abrasive statements Trump’s made have instilled very real fear in the millions of immigrants in the country.
But no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration policies, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a political issue; it’s a Catholic one, too.
So what does Catholic social teaching tell us about it? Immigration is difficult because two rights are held in tension: the rights of the immigrant, and the rights of a country to control its borders. But it doesn’t have to be a decision between one or the other.
Catholic social teaching is a “both-and”
Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, recently spoke to Denver Catholic on immigration reform policies, stressing that both the immigrant and the country have rights and responsibilities in relation to each other.
“According to Catholic social teaching, when we are dealing with human beings who possess inviolable and unalienable rights, we need to act respecting their dignity…allowing everyone to have access to what they need…especially helping the poor in a spirit of solidarity,” Bishop Rodriguez said.
He continued, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “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…[and] immigrants are obliged…to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens,” (2241).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Bishop Rodriguez also referred to, has several resources and documents on the issue, including an outline of five basic principles.
- Persons have a right to find opportunities in their homeland.
- Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
- Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.
- Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
- The human dignity and human rights of undocumented immigrants should be respected.
The tension between the immigrant’s right to migrate and the State’s right to control borders is held together by the common good. The CCC defines the common good as “the total sum of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily,” (1906).
With the common good in mind, comprehensive policies can be created — it can be a “both-and” of respecting the human person and the law, instead of an “either-or.” However, these laws need to be at the service of the human person, says Bishop Rodriguez.
“These laws do not deal with commercial exchange of material products, but rather with human beings,” he said. “The law is only an instrument in the service of human dignity, not her inflexible patron.”
The dignity of the person
“I think the key in Catholic social teaching is that we remember the dignity of the human person — each person is a child of God…that’s a principle we can lose,” said Luis Soto, former director of Hispanic ministry of the Archdiocese of Denver. “Our interaction with people should be first and foremost remembering they’re a child of God and that legal status doesn’t affect that.”
Because it deals with persons, immigration is a pro-life issue too, says Soto.
“It is [a pro-life] issue, because we believe in the dignity of life,” Soto said. “We’re not defending people who have committed crimes, however, the dignity of the person has to be guarded in the process. We believe in the dignity of [conception of] life to natural death, and everything in-between.”
While Catholic social teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person, it does not dismiss laws. In his article titled, “Immigration and the Law,” the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said that as a nation, our cultural identity is wrapped up in the order of the law, as we were founded on a Constitution.
“The U.S. bishops have made it clear that they are not in favor of illegal immigration. No one has a ‘right’ to come into someone else’s country illegally,” Cardinal George wrote (emphasis added).
However, both he and other bishops have urged for a comprehensive reform on immigration policy, one that deals with the issue humanely.
“The reform should start with concern for the basic respect that is owed all human beings, no matter their status before the law. It should provide a path to citizenship for the great majority who are law-abiding citizens now, and it should separate for deportation any who are criminals,” Cardinal George said.
“We cannot wait for immigration reform”
Many bishops have spoken on the issue of immigration reform, but of all of them, perhaps none are as passionate and persuasive as Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In his article “We cannot wait for immigration reform,” he points out that with every wave of immigration in America, we have met them with “suspicion, resentment and backlash.”
“Think about the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese. It is no different with today’s immigrants. We need to keep that perspective,” Archbishop Gomez said.
He said that despite the media hype about the issue, deportations didn’t begin with Trump’s administration — in fact, the previous president deported more than anyone in American history. That said, the problem of illegal immigration isn’t just a one-sided blame game.
“These 11 million undocumented people did not just arrive overnight. It happened over the last 20 years. And it happened because our government — at every level — failed to enforce our immigration laws,” Archbishop Gomez said. “And law enforcement officials looked the other way because American businesses demand ‘cheap’ labor — and lots of it.”
“Why aren’t we punishing the businesses who hired them, or the government officials who didn’t enforce our laws?” he continued. “There is plenty of blame to go around. And that means there is a lot of opportunity to show mercy. Mercy is not the denial of justice. Mercy is the quality by which we carry out our justice.”
He also called for us to depict America as it truly is — not just a country founded by Western Europeans, but of one rich in its history of Hispanic culture and influence.
“We can no longer afford to tell a story of America that excludes the rich inheritance of Latinos and Asians…we need to tell the story of St. Junípero Serra and Thomas Jefferson.”
Other bishops speak out
Among the many bishops that have spoken out on the issue, including Arcbhishop Charles J. Chaput and Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, the general consensus is the same: the U.S. needs a comprehensive policy that respects the dignity of the immigrant, while enforcing a reform that places valid laws on border entry.
“Even though illegal immigrants have failed to observe our immigration laws,” said Archbishop Aquila in a 2014 interview with Denver Catholic, “they do not lose their God-given dignity as children of the Father. Our laws should reflect this reality, while also allowing for our country to enforce legitimate border controls.”
Archbishop Gomez recently published a book called, “Immigration and the Next America,” which expands on a recent talk he gave to U.S. bishops.
“I am not proposing that we ‘forgive and forget.’ Those who are here without authorization have broken our laws. And the rule of law must be respected,” Archbishop Gomez said. “So there needs to be consequences when our laws are broken. But I don’t think [the current policy] is fair, either. Why don’t we require the undocumented to a pay a fine, to do community service? We should ask them to prove that they are holding a job and paying taxes and are learning English.”
Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., said that the Trump administration’s current policies won’t solve the problem.
“Mass deportation is a panacea: the appearance of an answer without really resolving anything,” Bishop Conley said.
Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said that the new policies endanger the vulnerable and cause many problems.
“Taken together, these memoranda constitute the establishment of a large-scale enforcement system that targets virtually all undocumented migrants as ‘priorities’ for deportation, thus prioritizing no one,” Bishop Vasquez said.
For more resources on Catholic social teaching and the Church’s statements on immigration, visit the USCCB at usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/index.cfm.
You can also visit the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), a Catholic educational institute devoted to integrating immigrants, at cmsny.org for other information and resources.