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OTG: Frs. Planty and McGraw call for sobriety and compassion in dealing with immigration

By Thomas Van (articles - email) | Oct 26, 2013

The immigration issue has been a point of bitter dispute among American Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and it is one area where conservative Catholic laypeople and the Church’s hierarchy have often failed to see eye to eye. In the Arlington Catholic Herald, Frs. Donald J. Planty and Stephen F. McGraw take the rare sober look at the Church's teaching on immigration.

The authors begin by clarifying that it is wrong to call illegal immigration a crime, as it is not evil in itself (malum in se); rather, it is a civil offense and must be met with a proportionate response – illegal immigrants may not be treated as criminals. They pursue this line of thought in a reflection on the difference between justice and legal positivism.  Different types of laws have different levels of authority, unjust laws are not morally binding, and there may be circumstances that justify breaking even a just law, so long as that law does not prohibit something that is malum in se.

After noting that only personal charity, rather than mere legislation, will suffice to create the fraternal spirit required for the just treatment of immigrants, the authors proceed to lay out five principles from Catholic social teaching that establish the rights of would-be immigrants in their own homelands, the rights of people everywhere to support their families, the rights of nations to control their borders, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and yes, the rights even of illegal immigrants.

Because the authors focus mainly on our obligations towards immigrants and devote little attention to prudential matters, to some the piece may seem unfairly weighted against those who recognize the many practical problems caused by illegal immigration. However, the article does not call for “open borders” or state that there should be no penalties for illegal immigrants; rather, it shows some much-needed perspective on the nature of human law and calls for a response proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

Ultimately, the issue does not exist in a vacuum, and a comprehensive solution to the immigration problem must deal with far more than just immigration policy. As a commenter pointed out, the Church must consider whether a more direct and long-term solution to the woes of immigrants would be to focus on rectifying the injustices in other countries that are forcing so many to immigrate to the US in the first place. But like the poor, immigrants will always be with us, so Frs. Planty and McGraw have provided a valuable reminder of our oft-neglected obligations toward the least among us.

A much lengthier essay on this topic by Frs. Planty and McGraw can be found here.

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