Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

“Illegals” are not “Immorals”: A Persistent Immigration Fallacy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 18, 2013

Whenever the USCCB dares to advocate policies which provide for easier immigration and naturalization (e.g., here), a few of our readers shout an argument which I devoutly hope never again to hear from anyone claiming to be Catholic: “We don’t owe illegals anything!”

Many Americans, especially conservative Americans, tend to be selective legalists. Despite their recognition of the falsity of some anti-life laws, they hold that the law confirms a sort of territorial moral exclusivity on citizens. This is one of many values which can arise from being culture bound. It typically creates a huge blind spot on immigration.

There are two false assumptions here. First, there is the assumption that those who have come earlier rather than later to a particular region, and have established a government over the region, and have developed a kind of society in that region, somehow have an exclusive claim to that region as their own. This is typically applied self-servingly; it is rarely upheld for peoples who may have occupied a territory prior to “us”. But in any case, the idea that one group of people can morally set a broad region to be off limits to other groups of people is absurd.

Where would such a moral right come from? Our God-given understanding of the universal destination of goods is sufficient to demonstrate its falsity. To the contrary, the Catholic Church has consistently (and rightly) affirmed that people have a right to migrate for good and constructive purposes, including the effort to increase their prosperity and provide better for their families. Such a right cannot be restricted without very good reason. Such reasons would include demonstrated evil intentions on the part of immigrants, or some other particular, severe and direct danger to the common good.

We must recognize that states, boundaries, and governments are mere conventions. They do not arise from moral truths; rather, they are bound by them. The right of migration, for a moral purpose and in a moral manner, is prior to the State, and prior to citizenship, just like the right to life, the right to marry, the right to raise a family.

A second and similar point must be made about the positive law. The positive law—that is, a law passed by government for the purpose of ordering the common good of a community—does not in and of itself generate moral force. Insofar as such laws are designed to correspond with God’s law, the natural law, of course they derive moral force from the principles they encapsulate. But most positive laws are mere conventions. As such they arise from convenience. They outline a particular manner of organizing affairs—one among many possibilities—in order to establish a basic order which, taken as a whole, serves the common good.

Such laws of convenience are called “penal” laws. Their lack of moral content explains why, for example, speed limits and stop lights and curfews have no moral force beyond the general desirability that the conventions of the common good, and sometimes the public authority’s indication of a need for safety, should be respected for the sake of good order. This moral force is exceedingly weak, and a person may morally violate a traffic law or break curfew for any reasonable cause, though he may have to pay a penalty if caught. So too with other such laws. Indeed, what the positive penal law contains is not a specific moral requirement but simply a statement of how the public authority wishes to arrange things and a notification that the breach of the standard arrangement will carry a penalty. The penalty is applied not for a breach of morality, but for a breach of those particular conventions which, in this time and place, are accepted as norms for a trouble-free community experience.


There is certainly room for both custom and convention in handling immigration; they may shape but not obliterate fundamental rights. Nearly all our readers can see at once that the State’s enactments to protect and facilitate abortion have not a shred of authority to make abortion moral, or to compel us to obey such laws on moral grounds. Given this perception, it continues to astonish me that so many cannot see what is equally obvious, that a State’s claim to have sole charge over comings and goings in a vast territory does not create a moral argument against migration, and cannot compel us to obey such laws on moral grounds, either for emigration or for immigration. (For more on this, see The Sovereignty Myth: On the Limits of Political Authority.)

Now it is equally obvious that a government has an obligation to protect the common good of all within its territory. Restrictions on immigration and emigration may be morally enacted for serious (and typically temporary) reasons, and of course those who are personal threats to the security of others may be morally restricted. But broader considerations—such as a general desire to reserve available resources for the chosen few—simply do not possess the moral force to deny the basic human right to migration. Moreover, new arrivals in a community are also part of the community whose common good it is the object of government to secure. After all, the idea of citizenship itself is a convention.

A related observation is that the financial benefits provided by government to citizens, and their possible extension to those who have not yet fulfilled the conventions of citizenship, create a separate question which must be settled prudently. I cannot address that pragmatic question here, so I will simply state the obvious: One of the idiocies of a nanny state is that it creates dependent citizens, and then this unnatural state of dependency is used as an excuse for being unable to “afford” immigrants. Sometimes, our own conventions tend to pile up and lock us within false dichotomies. When this happens, we take for granted errors which undermine morality.

The bottom line here is that we really are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. There is a moral obligation in this which is not dependent on who arrived first or on what conventions particular governments may enact. By the law of nature, a welcoming and supportive community is, in this respect, a moral community. How much more is this true for Christians, and especially for Catholics, who have the Church’s social teaching to guide them! Indeed, hospitality is an ancient Christian virtue.

Again, illegals are not immorals. The expression “we don’t owe illegals anything” has no place on a Catholic’s tongue, because it has no place in a Catholic’s heart. Surely Our Lord had this in mind, among many other things, when He said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man” (Mt 15:18).

For a more extensive treatment of immigration, see Immigration: The Contested Principle.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jun. 22, 2013 2:57 PM ET USA

    WOW! Dr. Mirus never says Illegal Immigration (...TION) is ok and valid. He also did not say we should not protect ourselves from those intending to do us harm. He's talking about the immigrant people [you know, God's creation with immortal souls, our brothers and sisters] AND our response to them; yours, his, and my, real response from our hearts to the very real people we encounter every day. This is not an intellectual opinion / discussion about the choices they made in how they got here.

  • Posted by: charlesteachout5398 - Jun. 20, 2013 6:41 PM ET USA

    I am flabbergasted at this statement! First, Archbishop Chaput is correct in saying that every nation has a right to defend its borders. There is nothing ARBITRARY about that!! What is appalling is that I have been so very much in agreement, and encouraged by ALL of the Statements issued from until today. This statement is a thinly veiled attack on those of us who believe that America cannot leave its borders porous, cannot them with unlimited welfare. Too bad!

  • Posted by: Faith@Rome - Jun. 20, 2013 3:40 PM ET USA

    The bishops should be cautious in overstepping their duties by engaging too aggressively in political actions involving worldly things which provide physical nourishment for the body rather than spiritual nourishment for the soul. The clergy should be teachers of the moral law to the laity, rather than be political activists themselves. The current immigration controversy has many possible prudential solutions, all within the moral law. By no means must illegal immigration be accepted.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 20, 2013 12:45 PM ET USA

    There are some positions a Catholic may take that require "prudential judgement" (are not "non-negotiable".) An issue is "prudential judgement" if there may exist a concrete set of circumstances that in one case require one response, and in another a different response. However, it is false to imply that this means a Catholic is free to chose any option. In any concrete situation, there will always be a choice that is in accord with God's will, and another that is sinful

  • Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 - Jun. 20, 2013 10:34 AM ET USA

    This debate is so passionate someone has called bishop Chaput a cardinal! From what I am reading here commentators fear illegal immigration more than they fear 'legal' abortion. As Benedict XVI once said, Satan must be rejoicing... Congratulations Dr. Jeff, keep up those good and well balanced contributions. God bless you!

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 20, 2013 8:55 AM ET USA

    1.State boundaries are not simply arbitrary conventions, they are tied to property, which possession is a natural right, according the Leo13 and JP2. The right of migration must be viewed within the context of property rights. 2. There is a plausible argument that the expansion of immigration under proposed law will lead to a massive expansion of the welfare state. Such an expansion is an attack on the person, b/c he is lured into dependency, and it drains resources from those in true need.

  • Posted by: Faith@Rome - Jun. 20, 2013 8:52 AM ET USA

    The things that are God's are non-negotiable - abortion, homosexuality and same-sex "marriage", embryonic stem cell research, cloning, infanticide, euthanasia. One must preserve God's Law by always opposing these sins.The things that are Caesar's, or worldly things, are negotiable and a person may legitimately be for or against them - capital punishment, the economy and jobs, health-care and housing, war, the environment and immigration.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jun. 20, 2013 2:01 AM ET USA

    I have about had it with this subject due to people questioning my faith, campassion, and morality for saying that we must control our borders and expell those who have come here illegally. I have an allegory for you: Say a troop of squatters were to decide to take up residence in a cathedral. Disrupting the mass, breaking up the furnishings, knocking over works of art, etc. What would be the response? That is what we have now. They are not assimilating. They are overwhelming social programs.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jun. 19, 2013 10:24 PM ET USA

    The immigration issue is complex. It is unhelpful to oversimplify in making a particular case. In all of the previous posts I do not see reference to an expanded documented worker program, available in other countries. Many people do not wish to leave their home permanently. They would like to return home to see their loved ones: not possible for the illegal alien. But documented worker programs are problematic for unions. Documented workers could be be set on a path to citizenship.

  • Posted by: BlessedByJP2 - Jun. 19, 2013 9:00 PM ET USA

    What about the impact on low-skilled American workers with little education? You'd think the USCCB would consider the effects of legalizing millions of illegals on the wages and employment prospects of low income U.S. citizens. Their interests should come before those of business or citizens of other countries. Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has written a brilliant op-ed on this subject - read it here:

  • Posted by: gustilohamar7837 - Jun. 19, 2013 4:02 PM ET USA

    I agree with dover beachcomber raghanger, jg23753479, journalist64 and sarsok8679. I am the daughter of a legal immigrant from a 3d world country, and all of my aunts and uncles who came over after my dad had to wait their turn. It took years. Cardinal Chaput said in 2010:"Illegal immigration is wrong and dangerous for everyone involved. There is nothing good about people risking their lives to enter the US, and nothing good about americans not knowing who crosses their borders.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jun. 19, 2013 3:58 PM ET USA

    Not having grown up with a Catholic education, I find I need some guidance toward a means to educate myself in understanding natural law and articulating a basis for it such that I would be able to back up a statement like, "By the law of nature, a welcoming and supportive community is, in this respect, a moral community," when questioned on it. What should I read? Thanks.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 19, 2013 3:01 PM ET USA

    Totally agree. Great post. And the anti-immigrant movement (NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform) was founded by John Tanton who, before he devoted his life to opposing ALL legal immigration was an executive for Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and Zero Population Growth respectively. I am a big opponent of American aging trends and a big supporter of more people (more babies, more immigrants)!

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Jun. 19, 2013 1:32 PM ET USA

    Got to say that this is the first time I did not agree with you. As a Catholic I have a moral obligation to give assistance to those who need it. But does that mean that I have to give help to someone who has broken into my house because I have better living conditions than they have in their house. The United States of America give untold resources to Mexico, Germany, Kuwait, and many other countries. We have a immigration system, that while not perfect, is a legal means to enter the country.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Jun. 19, 2013 12:27 PM ET USA

    your implication is that immigration laws are themselves immoral. Even the Bishops don't say this! the(USCCB) "recognized the right of the sovereign to control and protect its borders" Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia concedes "We believe Americans have a right to solvent public institutions, secure borders and orderly regulation of immigration." How to specifically balance this right with humane treatment of people breaking our law by entering the county illegally is a prudential judgement

  • Posted by: mgreen32234 - Jun. 19, 2013 11:35 AM ET USA

    If the bishops want to help illegals, why not organize to give them what they need in their own country. Remember mission work? It would be a lot cheaper than trying to do it in America where we have no growth, no jobs for unskilled people, social services stretched thin and record numbers of families on food stamps. If 50 % of us pay taxes,should we sell what we have and give it to the illegals? This is insanity.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 19, 2013 11:01 AM ET USA

    Borders are not mere conventions. They reflect a legitimate means of demarcation a jurisdiction to provide for the common good. In their shilling for illegal immigrants, the Bishops have aided the corrupt Mexican government in exploitation of its own citizens.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 19, 2013 1:47 AM ET USA

    Very well, when we find illegal immigrants, let's see to it that they don't go without food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. (They are given food, shelter, clothing, and medical care by ICE when they are apprehended, ). But please explain why it is so un-Catholic to say to them also, "We have relieved your distress, as Christ told us to do. But we have no authority to defy the just laws of our country by helping you to gain from your act. So now you too must obey the laws, and depart."

  • Posted by: Petronius - Jun. 18, 2013 11:52 PM ET USA

    Holy sophistry, Kingfish!

  • Posted by: abc - Jun. 18, 2013 11:51 PM ET USA

    And the Torah repeats a thousand times not to oppress the stranger "for you were a stranger in Egypt" (Ex 22,21 for example)

  • Posted by: raghanger - Jun. 18, 2013 11:43 PM ET USA

    Your case is well presented. I agree with your moral approch. However you left out of your presentaion one important thing, and that is the abuse that is well known to come with illegal immagrants. You might ask why they are allowed to obtain divers licence and automatically registered to vote. What happened to the rule that one must be a US citizen to vote? Of course this would not (tongue in cheek) and the fact that free handouts are provided, direct their choice of candidates..........?..

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 18, 2013 8:01 PM ET USA

    While you say nothing wrong here, you choose to gloss over two big problems: 1. The welfare state is huge and has been generous to illegal immigrants as well as to terrorists (the Boston Mohammedan bombers were living off the largess of the government); 2. Not all immigrants will be Mexican Catholics, all of whom, illegal or not, I welcome with open arms. But many will be Muslims -- as has happened here and to a far greater degree in Europe -- and they are simply not compatible with our culture.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jun. 18, 2013 7:47 PM ET USA

    Correct. There must be a balance here, and there is not. On the one hand, there is something fundamentally unjust about the fast track given to foreign nationals who bring a million dollars into the country, ahead of others who have patiently waited in line. On the other hand, not enforcing the border laws, which are now most porous in South Texas and leaving many ranchers in border counties in fear of their lives, just plays into the hands of the cheap labor plutocrats.

  • Posted by: sarsok8679 - Jun. 18, 2013 7:46 PM ET USA

    To imply that conservatives are somehow not welcoming hypocrites because they want the border secure in nonsensical, and frankly I am sick and tired of hearing neocon Catholics who should know better, take the side of liberal bishops who welcome illegal aliens with all the benefits of this nation and pay nothing for it. If someone comes to your house and takes what belongs to your that is immoral, but if they take from a country what belongs to the citizens of that is not immoral?

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Jun. 18, 2013 7:21 PM ET USA

    Living in the US Southwest, it is interesting to note that the "Mexicans" were here long before the rest of us. Parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were Mexican before they were U.S. and many of the local people of Mexican decent have family roots that go back to pre-U.S. days. I feel that the anti-immigrant attitude of some Catholics is the reason why so many Hispanics are leaving the Church and joining Prostestant sects. The vast majority of the Mexican-Americans are fine people

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 18, 2013 6:11 PM ET USA

    Jos 24:4 "And I gave unto Isaac Jacob and Esau: and I gave unto Esau Mount Seir, to possess it; but Jacob and his children went down into Egypt." Will you even embrace anarchy in order to justify the bishops?