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How Catholics Should Think about Immigration

CC Jens Schott Knudsen

John Zmirak - published on 07/02/13 - updated on 07/31/18

Within the bounds of these two statements, Catholic laymen are free – indeed, we’re obliged – to argue about the proper application of this teaching in our own country and context. In the same way, we apply “just war” teaching to particular conflicts our nation faces. While we listen to the advice of popes and bishops, we know that they can be wrong, as some medieval popes were wrong to call crusades against Christian heretics or to wage war on neighboring cities. 

Those of us who, after serious reflection, come up with our own answer about the optimum number of migrants for our country to admit while remaining consistent with the common good ought not to be falsely branded as “dissenters” or “apostates,” or charged with any of a long list of other made-up hate crimes that are routinely adduced by leftist activists and well-meaning but addled Catholics who have internalized leftist arguments.

Let us parse the points made by the Catechism, and see how the implications of Church teaching can be discussed in a civil manner. What are the points over which we might disagree?

“to the extent they are able”

This statement is written broadly enough that we could argue over it indefinitely. Theoretically, the entire population of the world could fit in the state of Texas, with several feet of wiggle room to spare. Does that mean that the U.S. is “able” to accept the entire world? Clearly not, because there are countless economic, environmental, cultural, fiscal, and other factors that determine what we are actually “able” to do. All those points are things we must determine by rational argument, setting our national priorities by democratic vote. There is no secret “Catholic answer” to these questions, though natural law principles can and should be invoked in our discussions of the matter. Such arguments are prudential, and the Church does not pretend to have the competence to answer them; if it did, we should simply ask Pope Francis to use his infallible authority to draw up the U.S. budget every year. 

We must discuss this question using a cost/benefit analysis, looking both at the common good and (in light of the Church’s correct emphasis on a ‘preferential option for the poor’) on how a given policy affects the poorest American citizens. Not the poorest people on earth, but the poorest Americans.

Why do I say that? Isn’t it “xenophobic” and “discriminatory” to privilege poor Americans over poor Iraqis or Somalis? Aren’t those “foreigners” equally made in the image and likeness of God?  

Of course they are. But just as we owe family members more than we owe strangers, we owe more to fellow citizens – whose ancestors paid taxes to build our roads and fought in our country’s wars, who may even have been American slaves – than we do to foreign residents. In some ways, a country is like a club where members pay dues and take on certain duties in return for certain privileges. To flood such a club with non-members and offer them every privilege members have earned is simply unjust to the other members. It is up to the members to vote on whom they will admit and how many. And one of our key criteria must be, as Catholics, “How does this influx affect the American poor?” Given the U.S. birth dearth and the collapse of public schools (in part under the weight of mandatory bilingualism), we must also ask: “How does it affect working families who are striving to educate their children?”

“Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them”

We could argue for years about what this means. But surely fulfilling this obligation of immigrants includes a certain degree of assimilation: namely, learning the English language and switching their loyalty from their nation of origin to the U.S. When tens of thousands of recent immigrants, both legal and illegal, march through the streets chanting foreign slogans and waving foreign flags, that raises legitimate fears among Americans that not all immigrants are willing to keep up their side of the bargain. It doesn’t help when immigrants go to their former nations’ consulates to vote in their elections, or when they vote as ethnic blocs in our elections for larger government programs to tax the wealth of native-born citizens to fund programs from which the immigrants disproportionately benefit. 

“to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”

Right there, we see that those who have not obeyed U.S. immigration laws have forfeited any strict claim in justice to remain on American soil. Simply the fact that a law is poorly enforced does not mean that we are free to violate it, demand that the state later give us amnesty, and sign up for social programs we barely paid taxes to support. By saying this, do I mean that I favor the mass deportation of illegal immigrants? No, because it’s imprudent. When we search for a prudent policy for dealing with the ill-effects of poor law enforcement – the presence of more than 10 million illegal residents – we must make sure that such poor enforcement does not happen again. That is all that opponents of the current immigrant amnesty are arguing; in return for this mass act of mercy toward those who have broken our laws, all we ask is a real and solid guarantee that this will never happen again. The multiculturalist Left and cheap-labor Right are fighting, tooth and nail, every truly effective policy for securing our country’s borders, demanding amnesty first and enforcement later.  Forgive us for not believing empty promises; Our Lord did tell us to be “wise as serpents.” 

These are the issues at stake in the immigration debate. It is useless – and frankly uncharitable – for either side to assume the lowest, foulest motives of its opponents. So let’s make a deal: You don’t call me an apostate and I won’t call you a traitor. Instead, “let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) about what policies ensure the common good and help our poorest fellow citizens.

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