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Immigration: The Contested Principle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2012

Recently I’ve tried to articulate an authentically Catholic approach to immigration, an approach which takes full account of what the Church has taught on the subject. I have found this difficult for two reasons. First, as with many controversial issues, people tend to respond based on their own emotional pressure points. Second—and to be perfectly frank—I have been trying to articulate the Catholic principles on this issue for the first time, and I have mixed some things into the discussion which have obscured the main point.

I stand by my In Depth Analysis The Sovereignty Myth: On the Limits of Political Authority as a sound theoretical foundation for any discussion of immigration. Unfortunately, my introduction of “the immigration fence” into that discussion proved to be a huge distraction. I do have a profound unease concerning both the wisdom and morality of any country attempting to fence itself in. For me, this sounds a number of warning bells. But the concerns it raises are much better discussed after the fundamental principles governing immigration policy are well-understood. Today, therefore, I am going to attempt clearly and forcefully to articulate only the single most critical point.

As I indicated in “The Sovereignty Myth”, every human right is limited, and it is the legitimate task of the public order to adjudicate and balance the competing claims which arise from the rights and duties of the persons represented by that public order. In this task of adjudicating and balancing, the public order is bound by the requirements of the common good. But the common good derives from the rights and duties of the persons in the community; it does not derive from any rights or revelations peculiar to the public order itself. Obviously, the Church has over the centuries contributed a great deal to the understanding of the temporal order, the nature and limits of public authority, personal rights and duties, and the nature of the common good.

But the contribution most often ignored by modern states, and even by many Catholics within these states, is that one of the limited rights possessed by the human person is the right to migrate. I do not mean “limited” here in the sense that this is a lesser right in comparison with other rights; I mean “limited” in the sense that all human rights are necessarily limited in their application and implementation. This right to migrate has been formally enunciated in both a major encyclical (John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris) and a conciliar document (Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes), both of which I quoted in my inroductory essay, The Immigration Paradox: Blindness is Forbidden.

It is one of the failings of our current “rights discourse” that as soon as something is proclaimed a “right”, people assume that it is absolute, unlimited and unrelated to any corresponding duty (at least whenever it suits their purposes). As a result, many have accused the Church of favoring unlimited migration, and some readers have accused me (as one particularly colorful comment put it) of wanting “open borders between heaven and hell.” But in the context of the common good, rights never work themselves out in an unlimited way. Every human right is limited—that is, every human right is operative only within certain parameters imposed by the natural law and the common good of the community in which those rights are exercised. This is true not only in political theory, but in the Church’s own teaching. She has formally taught this essential limitation with respect to such rights as the right to life, the right to property, the right to religious liberty, and, indeed, the right to migrate—which, I might add, is linked closely to the duty to contribute something to the community in which one lives.

Those who have read my arguments carefully have realized—and very rightly—that I have not advocated unlimited immigration. I have in fact argued that the right to migrate, along with other rights and duties, must necessarily be adjudicated and balanced by the public order for the common good. What is so special about the Church’s teaching is not that she believes the right to migrate is somehow absolute, but that there is, in fact, a personal right to migrate. Therefore, potential and real immigrants have a claim that must be taken into account in framing immigration policy.

What this means is really quite simple, but only at the level of principle and attitude: It means that insofar as anyone, or any public authority, considers immigration as if only those in current possession have any claim in the matter, then to that precise degree the resulting immigration policy will be unjust. This, and only this, is the message which the Church has been attempting to hammer into our heads through this portion of her social teaching.

Note that nothing the Church teaches makes the best policy easy to figure out. The Church does not prescribe specific social solutions. But her teaching explodes what I have called the “sovereignty myth”. By this I refer to the myth—contrary to both the Catholic faith and the natural law—that because our national government is, through some accident of history, currently in possession of a particular territory, it follows that our immigration policy may be based exclusively on the desires of current citizens (or, still worse, the desires of current government officials). This is a myth because ours are not the only claims.

What the Church teaches has two aspects: First, it is not only our peace of mind, our prosperity, our needs, and our comfort zones that matter; the potential immigrants’ peace of mind, prosperity, needs and comfort zones matter, too. Second, this truth is not a matter of charity but of justice; the potential immigrant has a legitimate claim, a claim based on the universal personal right to migrate, which all the existing citizens in the receiving community also possess.

A just immigration policy, however difficult it is to craft, must take this claim into account. This claim is one of the things that must be balanced and adjudicated in a true appraisal of the common good. We are not the only ones with rights. This is what the Church’s Magisterium teaches. And since this is a matter of natural law, all members of the community may be rightly expected to take it into account. I have no fundamental quarrel with those who accept the Church’s teaching in this regard. My fear is only that too many Catholics are not yet willing to admit this truth, or to consider what sacrifices this truth may legitimately entail.


Previous in series: The Sovereignty Myth: On the Limits of Political Authority

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rfwilliams2938 - Mar. 21, 2012 7:41 AM ET USA

    "through some accident of history, currently in possession of a particular territory...is Jewish possession of Israel also some accident in history?

  • Posted by: Barbnet - Mar. 20, 2012 5:47 PM ET USA

    Christian life in the Meditteranean states is very different from 1600 years ago. Then Egypt was Christian, also Syria , Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Armenia, Macedonia, the Balkans and nearly all nearby regions. Not so today, and your recent column points to daily Christian persecution in Islamic countries. When you say every human being has the right to migration, I believe you are making an intellectual argument. But I do not wish to import male misogyny, polygamy, or worse.

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