Tough-Love Immigration

America has the world’s largest economy and, even during the current mild recession, a nearly insa­tiable thirst for new workers. But how can America absorb about two million new immigrants a year without losing its specifically American culture? How can we do the right thing by the strangers who flock to our shores looking for work without forfeiting a national identity that took us 200 years to forge? How can we set a truly moral immigration policy—one that is generous without being foolish?

We know, for example, that Pope John Paul II has begged Catholics to demonstrate their solidarity with the thousands of “desperate men and women, many of whom are young,” who “every day face sometimes dramatic risks to escape from life without a future,” as he declared in a World Immigration Day speech in 1999. The pope acknowledged that many countries have made great efforts to welcome immigrants and integrate them into their societies. Nonetheless, John Paul said, “the misunderstandings that foreigners often experience reflect the need to urgently transform structures and change mentalities.”

The pope continued, “On the one hand, globalization accelerates the movement of capital and the exchange of goods and services among men, inevitably influencing human movements.” John Paul also recognized that globalization causes new economic and cultural cleavages. In a context of unbridled economic freedom, the difference between rich nations and poor nations becomes profound. “The former have capital and technology that enables them to enjoy the planet’s resources, a faculty they do not always employ with a spirit of solidarity by learning to share,” John Paul said—while poorer nations have a difficult time acquiring the necessary resources for development. Crushed by debt and lacerated by political divisions, they sometimes dissipate what little they have. John Paul ended his speech by denouncing Western countries with relative abundance that nonetheless close their borders under pressure of public opinion.

Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, the world’s other nations might expect it to maintain the relatively open immigration policies that have led to its present richly diverse character. Yet current U.S. immigration policy seems in many ways to be anything but friendly or driven by a desire for more immigrants. In discussing immigration policy, Congress, state legislatures, and community forums stress job skills, English-language proficiency, and economic self-sufficiency as desirable traits for prospective immigrants—criteria that seem distinctly exclusionary. California voters, for example, in 1994 approved Proposition 187, which denied welfare, health care, and some other benefits to undocumented aliens and their children. Border patrol operations are periodically intensified to stem the tide of illegal immigrants to the United States.

Available data disclose, however, that what many Americans regard as an “immigration problem” is more accurately a problem of illegal immigration. The stereotypical image of immigrants secretly crossing the border under cover of night is only partly true. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that 60 percent of the annual increase in the illegal immigrant population is attributable not to stealth border crossings but to temporary visitors such as students and short-term workers overstaying their visas.

The criteria currently used to determine who is allowed to immigrate to the United States legally are in some ways quite reasonable. We now give priority to family members of legal U.S. residents, refugees, asylum-seekers, and workers crucial to the U.S. economy. The problem is that we do not set realistically high numerical levels for admission of these “worthy” immigrants who are likely to uphold and strengthen the American system. Thus, many people seek to enter the United States illegally (or they overstay visas) rather than be put on interminable waiting lists for legal immigration with no assurance of ultimate success.

The United States has a workforce of 139 million but accepts only about 660,000 foreigners as permanent residents a year. In 1998, for example, 476,000 of those had family ties in America, and 77,000 more came as employees of U.S. companies or were spouses and children of employees. Among those already employed immigrants, half were academics, executives, or celebrities.

Incentives to Immigrate

It is obvious that immigration is a one-way street, with the coveted terminus for most being either North America or Europe. The reasons are not difficult to discern. A recent report in the New York Times told of a small village in southern China that had lost 80 percent of its men between the ages of 20 and 40, who, despite risks, had immigrated illegally to the West to work. The rewards are great. As a waiter or construction worker, an illegal immigrant can easily earn $2,000 a month in California, while back in China his labor would earn a mere $40 a month. In spite of the dangers associated with the illegal travel—which sometimes takes the immigrant armed with forged documents across a series of borders on foot or packed into airless trucks—most Chinese who want to immigrate make it. They typically become very successful in their new countries in terms of both sending money home and bringing relatives to join them.

The globalization of the economy, coupled with the growing clout of international rings of organized crime specializing in the kind of illegal immigration that brings workers by the thousands from China to the West, is presenting North America and Europe with severe problems. There is evidence that these international gangs of smugglers are often better organized and equipped than the authorities responsible for border controls. The fact that immigration laws differ widely from country to country indicates a need for coordinated policies that distinguish clearly between legal and illegal immigrants. For example, last June, some 58 Chinese suffocated in a ship’s hold trying to cross the English Channel into Britain, where the immigration laws are more liberal than those of any other European Union nation and where the immigrants who died would likely have been granted asylum.

Can the so-called rich nations discourage immigration, whether legal or illegal, by alleviating poverty in underdeveloped countries? Available data do not present an optimistic picture. As a result of UN initiatives since 1995, some 75 nations have adopted plans to reduce poverty, and 38 have established concrete antipoverty objectives. An additional 40 are still working on strategies to address the problem. Yet Theo-Ben Gurirab, former president of the UN General Assembly, has estimated that there are more people in the world living in poverty today than there were five years ago.

Furthermore, we know that the wealth of a nation has less to do with its natural resources than with its political stability within a framework of laws that respect an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. Some of the poorest nations of the world are rich in natural resources, while some of the richest have few significant natural resources. The culture of a nation, its form of government, its work habits, indeed its philosophy, determine its achievement.

If it makes no sense for a successful nation to allocate its resources to a failed society, why should the same nation welcome immigrants from that society? We may speak of “human solidarity” as John Paul II does, or of the “brother-hood of man” or “socialist internationalism,” but opening the door to immigrants comes down to pure charitable impulses that seem to be a part of human nature itself. Self-interest alone cannot account for national altruism. Global peace—another proffered motive for generous immigration policies—is only a secondary objective. It does not have anything to do with the West’s generosity to some of the weakest nations of the world.

But should charity alone really be our guideline for setting immigration policy? Does charity ever help the chronically poor in the long run? Doesn’t the desire for self- sufficiency have to come from inside oneself? Isn’t this true of nations as well as individuals? Successful government and self- government depend on the presence of intellectual and moral virtue in the populace. The Western culture we take for granted has its roots in antiquity and represents an intellectual perspective symbolized over the millennia by Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and medieval Paris. That culture finds expression in the law, science, and technology as well as in the theology and religious practice of a country. Ours is a culture not universally shared, and therein lies the problem of assimilation. Can Muslims be assimilated en masse into Western culture? Individually, many of them may be enamored of the fruits of Western technology and even contribute to its advancement, but many Islamic practices, such as the veiling of women, are alien to Western culture. We cannot ignore the fact that Christians and Muslims have been at war with each other whenever immigration has brought them into the same territory. This was true in medieval times, and it remains true today in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, and Bosnia.

The Catholic intellectual Michael Novak has often spoken of “unmeltable” ethnics in the United States, citing the sociological research of Daniel Moynihan. Novak has noted that even after several generations in America, many groups retain at least some of the national customs of their ancestors. Poles and Czechs retain many of their folkways; Germans, Italians, and Mexicans, much of their cuisine. But these are superficial differences and may even enrich the general culture. Until the last half of the 20th century, most immigrants to the United States were European. They were eager to assimilate, often at the expense of forfeiting their native languages and mores. Today, that does not seem to be the case. Many immigrants never seek citizenship, and in the case of Latin Americans, they demand that American schools provide instruction in their native Spanish. Almost 30 percent of the immigrants now living in the United States are of Mexican origin, and their numbers ensure that at least for the present, they are able to maintain their own identity, culture, and language. For them, assimilation may not occur until the distant future.

St. Augustine’s Way

With problems like these, it would be a mistake to base our immigration policy on vague appeals to common brotherhood that could undermine the very culture that attracts immigrants to a country such as America. Yes, we have a duty of charity to immigrants. But charity is not mindless. Two fathers of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Jerome, spoke strongly of charity in their writings, but they made a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Augustine contended that it is better in many cases to give the undeserving poor not alms but instruction and admonition. He and Jerome both recognized that the obligation of charity should not make it hard for someone to fulfill his responsibilities, such as to his family. Augustine cautioned, of course, that we should not be too fastidious in discriminating between the deserving and undeserving poor lest we never give to anyone.

What does this have to do with immigration policy? Both Jerome and Augustine recognized that the first law of human nature is self-preservation, which in America means maintaining our Christian-inspired culture and also the obligation to foster a young and growing population.

Obviously, America cannot open its doors to immigration indiscriminately. The potential contributions to American culture of the immigrants themselves and their prospects for assimilation must be taken into account. At the very least, new immigrants should respect the traditions of their host country and should demonstrate a capacity for self-reliance. Still, we should be careful not to evaluate immigrants only for what they can contribute. A means test for immigrants might be necessary, but it should not be the only admissions criterion.

For example, in the years to come, America will probably want to attract more young would-be citizens to sustain its aging population via Social Security as well as more workers to sustain its industrial and technological cutting edge. So the policy proposed by some immigration reformers of admitting only very skilled immigrants might be unwise. The current U.S. policy, which favors family members of current residents, seems reasonably humanitarian, and one would hope it will be maintained even if we tighten our policy toward illegal immigrants, as we should.

Until recently, when socialist internationalism became fashionable among the intelligentsia, people tended to look to their government as the defender of their national culture. No man is an island. Only within a community can an individual acquire the ideas and moral habits that are a prerequisite for self-development, indeed for scientific and commercial achievement and national self-defense. People’s choices necessarily reflect the cultural milieu in which they are educated and come to maturity; they might not have chosen that culture, but they eventually make it their own. Civil society is based on the voluntary acceptance of certain rules and laws, agreed to in principle and observed in action. Thus, one need not accept the concept of untrammeled national sovereignty in order to recognize the right of a country to defend the culture of the people who reside within its boundaries. Human solidarity is a metaphor that should not be allowed to obscure palpable differences in cultures and the subversive effect they can have on a community, indeed on the life of a nation.

A reasonable immigration policy, therefore, will respect the cultural and religious heritage of the host country. It will reflect the perceptions of its people as a whole. To acquiesce to sentimental notions of human brotherhood and admit everyone, even those who have no desire to assimilate, is to turn one’s back on the sources of the culture that make the West attractive to immigrants. Surely America can work out a policy that is both generous—thus reducing the need for illegal immigration and encouraging the young workers and their families that this country needs—and tough on those who flout its border rules and moral conventions. This is the sort of charity that Jerome and Augustine would have approved of. It also offers the best hope for the “desperate men and women” whom John Paul II spoke of, those who flock to our shores in great numbers to escape grinding poverty that is no fault of their own.



  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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