Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Immigration Paradox: Blindness is Forbidden

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 13, 2012

The migration of large numbers of people is a worldwide problem, as even a casual look at recent news demonstrates. Today we learned that hundreds of thousands of Christians have been ordered to leave Sudan. Last week it was reported that Syrian Christians were fleeing to Lebanon. In February, the bishops of Korea strongly urged acceptance of the children of illegal immigrants. And stories about Muslim immigrants in Europe and Hispanic immigrants in the United States often dominate the news.

Here in the United States, the Catholic bishops tend to be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants while many in the pews express grave concern. It is fair to say that Catholic Americans are conflicted on the issue of immigration, but there is a tendency in some quarters to over-emphasize the rights of a pre-existing community to exclude newcomers. My main point in this essay is that being conflicted is perfectly understandable; but the tendency to emphasize the power of the State to control immigration is both irrational and dangerous. Let me briefly explain these two adjectives.

I am not thinking primarily of the impossibility of completely controlling those massive human migrations which conditions tend to make inevitable. I’m more concerned here with the erroneous idea that the State ought somehow to have total authority in the matter. Let us cast our minds back in time a little, back beyond our current cultural myopia. The origins of the claim of a government to authority over those in a particular region is extremely murky, to say the least. There is no rule by which governments arise, no power which those who claim to govern possess by the very nature of things. Somehow certain communities coalesce and—through a wide variety of traditions, constitutions, and ad hoc solutions—they accept a certain structure which represents the public order. Insofar as the resulting government tends to promote the common good, there is a broad tendency to regard it as “legitimate.” And insofar as it undermines the common good, its legitimacy will be questioned.

Now certainly man is a social animal who lives, develops and prospers best in community. And communities do have the natural right to establish a public order to protect and promote the common good in ways which purely private interests fail to do. But can a community and its government within a particular territory really regard itself as possessing an unrestricted authority over that territory by which it can exclude others? Given how communities arise and how governments are established, this is far too grand a claim. There is no natural right of any person, or group of persons, to be in possession of a certain territory, as sole owners and arbiters of its permanent destiny. This would suggest that the State somehow springs fully-grown from the head of Zeus, and that there are no prior or even more foundational communities, including the community of all mankind, which it is the purpose of government (and the public order in general) to serve.

As I said, this Statist fallacy is not only irrational but dangerous. If we argue that modern States have or ought to have absolute control over who comes and who goes in a particular region—as if immigrants themselves have no basic right to freedom of movement, to share in community life, to find ways for themselves and their families to prosper—then we succumb once again to the modern myth that the power of the State is absolute. This further empowers the State to usurp authority in every sphere, whether political, economic, cultural or religious. It fuels its self-conception as the sole arbiter of human destiny, at least within its borders. Thus many anti-immigration attitudes have the result of fostering the very totalitarianism toward which modern States seem almost inevitably to tend.

Nonetheless, as I mentioned at the outset, this does not mean that we can avoid being somewhat conflicted about immigration. We see in many circumstances that people around the world are left with little choice, for political or religious or economic reasons, but to emigrate; and we acknowledge that at some level they must have a right to do so. But then as members of our own communities, we see the problems and pressures that can result from the rapid influx of new groups of immigrants and we are uneasy about the changes to our own culture—and sometimes to our own position or even our own security—that such demographic shifts often portend. And so we also understand that the public order in our own community has some role to play in regulating immigration to protect and promote the common good.

Human rights are never absolute, and they are always related to duties. As a result, even in her formal teaching on this subject, the Church is similarly “conflicted.” She recognizes that a proper balance is essential through genuine solidarity, or the concern of all for all. Thus she has commented on both sides of the issue. In the encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII set down the parameters:

Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community. (#25)

Similarly, in The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the Second Vatican Council briefly touched on both the “personal right to migration” (#65) and the “rights and duties” of governments “within their proper competency” regarding population issues and migration (#87). Though not yet highly-developed, these nascent concepts were repeated more systematically in Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, issued with the approval of Pope John Paul II by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples in 2004, which also refers to the long line of annual papal messages for World Migration Day.

The issues surrounding immigration are far from simple. But we must be careful here to see the problem primarily in terms of members of the human family, and not primarily in terms of xenophobia and the power of the State. As Pope John Paul II put it in his 1996 message, “the Church…asks what the right to emigrate is without the corresponding right to immigrate.” He then clearly asserted that the Church seeks to address the problem “of how to involve in this work of solidarity those Christian communities frequently infected by a public opinion that is often hostile to immigrants.” Wouldn’t you say that this refers to us? As Catholics we may certainly see the complexities involved. But with respect to what it means to be a State and what it means to be a person, blindness is not an option.

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

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: - Mar. 14, 2012 2:52 PM ET USA

    You did not at all prove to me that you had a handle on this subject. The USA has the sovereign right to control the immigration of peoples. The bishops have the issue upside down; the old and new testaments make many referrals to aliens but the referrals do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. How can they justify their position when the people for whom they are proselytizing are lawbreakers? Try again.

  • Posted by: ronaldruais1947 - Mar. 13, 2012 10:33 PM ET USA

    You stated: “But can a community and its government within a particular territory really regard itself as possessing an unrestricted authority over that territory by which it can exclude others?” The answer to the question is yes. The Church in its social teachings upholds the right to private property and the territory ‘possessed’ by the state is simply the sum total of the private properties held by its citizens with some of the property being held in common for the common good.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 13, 2012 10:18 PM ET USA

    Also note that the anti-immigrant groups Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA were all founded by a former executive with Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and Zero Population Growth with a passion for using leniant abortion laws & strict immigration laws to reduce the number of people in the United States: John Tanton. Catholics should be wary of anti-population advocates of all kind.