Thoughts and Questions about Immigration

International migration occurs in varied settings and raises a variety of issues, so much so that sorting them out would be difficult even if some of them weren’t so inflammatory.

The issues are basic as well as numerous, and go to the nature of the common good, the nature and purpose of national societies, and the relation between the good of a particular people and that of their neighbors and of particular persons. Under such circumstances, an overall discussion can’t do much more than point to a few general considerations. Even that can be beneficial, though, since so much of what’s said on the matter is unreflective.

Immigration policy is a branch of public policy, as to which the Catechism tells us that

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Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.

So the function of American government is to seek the good of the American people while showing due regard for that of others. A government should thus exercise a preferential option for its own citizens. That is an obvious requirement of subsidiarity and loyalty, much like an employer’s preferential option for his employees and customers and a father’s for his wife, children, parents, cousins, and friends.

The Apostle Paul made a related point when he warned Timothy that

if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (1 Tim 5:8)

Saint Thomas expands on the theme, and tells us that

Man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country … The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country.

The “worship” and “homage” Saint Thomas mentions is of course limited, since we owe something to human beings simply as such. Patriotism and solidarity with fellow-countrymen are good and natural, but they have limits. That is why, with regard to immigration, the Catechism tells us that

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 which he cannot find in his country of origin … 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.

So how is the passage on immigration to be interpreted in light of the principles regarding government in general? As usual, the difficulties are in the details. Do the more prosperous nations have to welcome all arrivals from countries with more violence or less wealth, until violence and wealth are equalized everywhere, or only those in severe immediate danger? If there is war in the Middle East or food shortages in Africa, should we give all the people there plane tickets, or welcome them only if they somehow manage on their own to make it across our border? Does “able” refer to basic physical capacity, so that the United States could admit a hundred million immigrants next year by requiring every household to take in one or more, or does it refer to the ability to admit people without significant damage to the common good of citizens? And does “welcome” mean the right to stay permanently, the economic and social benefits provided citizens, special resettlement benefits, and the right to bring in family members, or does it mean accommodating refugees in well-ordered camps for as long as the emergency lasts?

The answers will vary depending on the balance of opposing considerations. But what gets balanced how? To make matters more difficult, effects can be hard to assess. New arrivals usually have some problems, because they don’t know their way around, but most end up making a contribution to their new society. Some don’t, though, and in any event the effects of immigration are more than individual. It has made America a very different place from what it was fifty years ago, or a hundred years before that. How do you decide whether that was good or bad, or whether it should happen again and again? Take a vote? Don’t make big changes without consensus? Or assert that diversity is always good and deny there can be an issue?

From such and other considerations, it’s evident that immigration, like most issues of public policy, is a matter of prudence, and serious Catholics will disagree on the answers. So informed and intelligent discussion is needed.

At present, mainstream commentary favors immigration. It reflects the views of educated, successful, and well-connected people, who don’t worry much about competition from new arrivals. If such people are Republican donors they like cheap labor; if Democrats, they like Democratic voters; if social activists, commentators, or scholars they like complicated social issues that need lots of expert input, and if members of a ruling group, they like diversity, because it makes coherent popular opposition much less likely. As for respected mainstream religious spokesmen who want to maintain their position, they like prophetic stands on behalf of the wretched of the earth that put them on the same side as the wealthy, powerful, and influential.

So people who run things and tell the public what’s what want lots of immigration. Those who disagree tend to be less well-placed and well-spoken, so their concerns, when allowed into the discussion at all, are often crudely presented or misrepresented. With that in mind, it seems useful to lay out some considerations that tell in favor of limiting immigration. None of them prove what would be the best policy, but they all deserve to be taken into account.

One consideration is the number of those who would immigrate if they could. There are lots of struggling people in the world, so many that moving some of them to more stable and prosperous countries doesn’t seem a sensible way to deal with the situation. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 13 percent of the world’s adults say they would like to leave their country permanently. Almost a quarter of them—roughly 150 million, plus their dependents—would make the U.S their first choice. At least as many would presumably accept the U.S. as an alternative, so if we decided to welcome all who want to leave their homelands to escape at least relative want and fear, our population would very quickly double.

That won’t be allowed to happen, so we’re mostly going to accept people who manage to get here and qualify themselves for admission or at least find some way to cross the border. Such an arrangement is not going to do much for the wretched of the earth. Instead, it’s going to strip source countries of many of their most talented, energetic, and enterprising people. And the benefit to immigrants won’t be as great as hoped, since they will be deprived through exile of the cultural connections and kinship networks by which they have always lived.

That’s a real problem, especially for those who arrive from countries where the way of life is rather different from that in the U.S. Even Mexicans, who benefit from the presence of a very large community of their fellows here, face serious problems, since their educational and economic progress generally stops or even reverses after the second generation. The problems are especially severe for young people, who become much more sexually active and prone to “conduct disorder” (basically, bad conduct by young people) as they lose their original culture.

Such are some of the effects of immigration on source countries and immigrants. Those effects recently led Mgr. Nicolas Djomo, president of an African episcopal conference, to appeal to the continent’s youth to stay there and “struggle to build a better society.” He told them “you are a treasure for Africa. The Church relies on you, your continent needs you.” He also warned of the cultural effects of migration, asking his listeners to “be vigilant of the deceptions of the new forms of the destruction of the culture of life, moral, and spiritual values.”

So migration is more ambiguous as a remedy for human ills than people believe. Its effect on America and Americans also matters, of course, and should be of primary concern to our policymakers. That discussion, however, will have to wait for a future column.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 14, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


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