The Catholic Case Against Open Borders

Support for large-scale immigration has risen dramatically in America over the past 25 years, especially among Democrats and younger people. Attitudes among Republicans and older folks have remained more stable, although they have drifted somewhat in line with the general trend.

What’s striking is that the widening gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue only began to develop around 2006. The former retain something close to their old views while the latter have moved sharply in favor. The generational gap has also grown significantly, although not as sharply or suddenly.

Leading Democrats have gotten on board with the trend. They don’t say they want open borders, of course, but they refuse to publicly support any meaningful restrictions either. The news media fully supports the tendency, and those who speak for the Church go along with the Democrats and media (as they do on most things).

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But is all this a good idea? The demand for a radical reduction of controls on immigration is very recent, and no one seems to have thought it through, even though it is (like most political issues) a matter of prudential judgment.

For starters, the Catechism states that

more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner … [but] 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. (CCC, 2241)

In other words, authorities should be generous, but the extent to which they admit immigrants should respect the fundamental principle that legitimate authority seeks the common good of the governed.

The responsibility of government to care for the community, and the mutual obligations of citizens, make immigration a bit like adoption. Adoption is a good and generous thing, and the well-being of the child up for adoption is important, but for parents, the well-being of the existing family is the first responsibility.

How would free migration work out for recipient countries—specifically the United States—and would it really further the universal common good? Of course, immigration is less fraught than adoption, since citizenship is a looser connection than family membership. But it does raise its own concerns.

For example, it often deprives source countries of people who are badly needed there. It doesn’t help Zambia if all the doctors and nurses emigrate to the United Kingdom and work for the NHS. That’s one reason several of Africa’s most prominent prelates have criticized proponents of mass migration.

What’s more, immigration necessarily separates families. Family reunification schemes can only do so much. They can, for instance, relocate a Guatemalan grandmother to be with her grandson in New York—but then her 16 other grandchildren are deprived of their Abuela. Such family bonds spread out ad infinitum, and, short of moving the entire population of South America to Brooklyn, they can’t survive the emigration process.

Immigration also means cultural disruption. For instance, a team of researchers led by Dr. Mary Adams of the University of Arizona published a startling report in 2005, which found that Hispanic teenagers who primarily speak English are more than twice as likely to be sexually active than those who are principally Spanish-speakers.

Assimilation is universally acknowledged as necessary for maintaining the social and cultural order in nations with high levels of immigration. And yet assimilation appears to make immigrants less inclined to conform to moral norms.

Cultural disruption is a problem for the recipient society as well. A big reason the cultural Left likes mass immigration, even by culturally conservative Muslims, is precisely because it’s so disruptive. Mass immigration creates a multicultural society with people attached to different ways of life with different standards. This makes it difficult to have public standards on things like family life. Progressives might not (for example) approve of Muslim women veiling in public. But calls to be “tolerant” of Islamic polygamy offer a convenient segue to normalizing “polyamorists,” who are now moving out of the fringes of the Sexual Revolution and into the vanguard.

And then there’s the problem of relations between ethnic and religious groups. Diversity is a challenge; even the Left acknowledges that. Surely, then, multiplying challenges without a strong reason is a bad idea.

From an American perspective, the practical arguments in favor of immigration mostly seem to be ethnic restaurants, economic dynamism, and low wages (a.k.a. “jobs Americans won’t do”).

But you don’t need mass immigration to grow food. We got along pretty well for thousands of years without it.

And while foreign-born, Johns Hopkins-trained physicians undoubtedly add something economically—well, we don’t suffer from a doctor shortage. Why couldn’t Johns Hopkins just educate more Americans? Moreover, as we’ve seen, these highly skilled immigrants are often badly needed in their home countries.

Low wages do benefit some people, of course. George J. Borjas, a Cuban-American economist at Harvard, argues persuasively that the net economic effect on Americans of recent immigration has been the transfer of five percent of national income from lower-wage workers to the high-salary employers. In other words, mass immigration pits less skilled and lower-income workers against each other as they compete to see who will work for less pay. No wonder the Koch brothers nearly went to war with President Trump when he tried to curb illegal immigration.

It’s hardly obvious, then, that large-scale immigration has practical benefits for the world in general or most Americans in particular. Instead, the arguments in favor are basically moral or philosophical. Radical leftists and radical libertarians both believe in the free movement of peoples as a basic human right and denounce the existence of national borders as “statist,” “fascist,” or some variation on that theme.

But can the world handle such colossal shifts in our population centers? Gallup surveys show that more than 750 million people worldwide would like to move to another country if they had the opportunity. That’s 10 percent of the world’s population. Moreover, 158 million of them would choose the United States as their top destination. And the US would be an acceptable second choice for most of the 270 million who would prefer another Western or Anglosphere country.

We can’t accommodate more than a small fraction of these people. And we could do more for those truly in need—with far less disruption to both their countries and ours—by helping them where they are.

Left-wing Catholics are always demanding this country adopt “more Christlike” border policies. The infamous Fr. James Martin, SJ has gone so far as to call America’s immigration laws “sinful.” Well, then, let’s look to the Gospel for solutions.

The Holy Family took refuge from Herod in Egypt. But they didn’t move to Rome, become citizens, and apply for the bread allotment. They stayed across the border while the danger lasted, and then went back home to Nazareth.

Give shelter to those whose lives are immediately threatened; otherwise, help to improve the political, economic, cultural, and spiritual conditions of their homeland. Sound good, Fr. Martin? That’s probably what Jesus would do. It’s what He did.


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