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“You shall love the alien as yourself”

A parishioner wrote me a very kind and thoughtful letter that took issue with my remarks on immigration in a recent homily. Because I knew him to be an educated and professional person, I decided to respond with a rather comprehensive explanation of how our Catholic tradition views immigration. Because I feel that others may benefit from the letter I sent to this parishioner, I am posting it here, although it is a bit longer than the usual blog post:

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful letter. I very much appreciate you taking the time to engage me in the matter of immigration. I firmly believe that we are sorely lacking in civil discourse in our society today, so your courteous manner of addressing your concerns is most welcome.

When considering the issue of immigration, as Christians we are called to view the matter through the lens of the Gospel rather than a merely secular viewpoint. And as Christians faithful to our Catholic tradition and our Jewish origins, we have a wealth of accumulated wisdom over several millennia to guide us.

The foundational issue in considering how to deal with immigration is our approach to resources and capital. The Second Vatican Council spoke of this important basis:

God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. (Gaudium et Spes no. 69)

Thus, our faith proclaims that national boundaries and the regulation of those boundaries are subject to a higher good. The earth and its resources are intended by God to be shared globally, not restricted by national boundaries.

Secondly, the Council Fathers also explained that all people have a right to work:

By his labor a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands. From this there follows for every man the duty of working faithfully and also the right to work. (Gaudium et Spes no. 67)

Of course these rights are subject to reasonable regulation by the state. The state may promulgate fair laws to regulate labor and commerce and so forth, but the state cannot morally deny anyone the basic right to ownership or work.

So what of the person who has a divinely ordained human right to work but cannot find work where he lives? He has a right, according to Church teaching, to go where he can find work, even if that means migration.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in regard to immigration:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (no. 2241)

As is clear from the above teaching, governments have a right to regulate immigration. The Church does not demand open borders. But such laws must, we believe, be in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel. When I said that our immigration laws are a disgrace, that is because they do not meet our basic requirements of human rights:

—A common complaint against people who come to our country without documentation is that they should “stand in line.” This is, on its face, a reasonable expectation. And I would agree with this sentiment, as would our hierarchy, if there were a line. But there is no line. The only way to legally enter the United States to work is generally to prove that one already has a job here or that one has an immediate family member living here legally. I’ll get to the requirement of having a family member already here shortly, but how is one to find a job here from another country? Certainly this is a Catch-22.

—For those with immediate family members here there is a line, but it is a line that lasts for literally decades and involves paying tens of thousands of dollars. I have known people who have tried for 10 or 20 years to bring an elderly parent to live with them, or to be reunited with their children, at great financial hardship. For a nation that claims to respect the family, this is an odd way to show that.

—For those who wish to come to work here legally, there is another way if they do not already have a job here or they have no immediate family already residing here: a lottery conducted by the State Department. The State Department lists the following countries whose residents need not apply, because they are not eligible: Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, South Korea, United Kingdom and Vietnam. For residents of these nations, there is no line, no legal way of entering the United States.

In our own parish, there are many immigrants suffering from this protracted agony over many years, trying to obtain legal status. Not all of them are from Mexico, as one might assume. They come from many nations, and often their long and expensive legal efforts end in vain.

With great unanimity, the hierarchy of the Church at all levels has called not for the abolition of immigration laws, but for their reform: to enable those who are forced by desperation to enter illegally to do so legally; to allow for the reunification of families; and to provide opportunities for the children of undocumented immigrants to make a life for themselves in this, the only country they have known and who are present here illegally through no fault of their own.

This is why all the bishops of the United States, Mexico, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean issued a joint statement on June 4 last year that stated:

We stand in solidarity with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who in his recent address to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People, called upon the nations of the world to establish policies and plans which give migrants and refugees “opportunities to obtain legal status, promoting the fair rights to family reunification, asylum and refugee status, compensating for necessary restrictive measures and opposing the appalling trafficking of human beings… We also acknowledge and support the right of our governments to ensure the integrity of their borders and the common good of their citizenry. We strongly believe, however, that these goals can be achieved and the rule of law preserved without violating human rights.  Governments can and must collaborate effectively to achieve regional development and stability.

Our own archbishop, Cardinal Mahony, has outlined some basic principles for immigration reform:

The central feature of reform should be to bring the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and offer them a secure path to legal status. In return, these immigrants must learn English, pay a fine, and work for several years before earning the right to receive permanent legal status. Some have described this grueling journey “amnesty”—they are wrong. What is being proposed is a path forward which will require enormous sacrifices on the part of the immigrants every step of the way. Another feature of reform would provide for a new worker visa program that would allow more migrant workers to enter the U.S. legally; improvements to our family-based reunification system should also be included in any reform bill. 

Lest we assume that our bishops are speaking in a state of wild-eyed idealism divorced from reality, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the outgoing president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoed Cardinal Mahony’s sentiments thusly:

The reform should start with concern for the basic respect that is owed all human beings, no matter their status before the law. It should provide a path to citizenship for the great majority who are law-abiding citizens now, and it should separate for deportation any who are criminals. The path to citizenship has to begin with registration with the government, so that those here without legal documents can begin to live on the right side of the law. Since reform is not an amnesty, it should probably include the payment of a fine for illegally entering our country, provisions for learning our public language, English, and for studying the basic laws of our country. These and other possible elements of the reform of immigration laws for those who want to live here permanently need to be debated publicly.

Part of the reform of immigration law might include a temporary visa program for workers who would not take up permanent residence in the United States. An adequate supply of such visas would do much to reduce the illegal smuggling of people across the border, which has made it a place of human trafficking, of drug trading and of violence. The other part of such a program would be a nationwide employment verification system that would enable the government to be sure that employers hire only workers who are here legally. This system would have to be carefully monitored, with adequate legal safeguards for both workers and employers.

To further demonstrate that support for reform of our disgraceful immigration laws is not just my personal opinion, I can direct you to dozens of other statements from our bishops at

In my homily, I also stated that the Senate’s rejection of the DREAM Act was shameful. This also was not only my opinion; passage of the DREAM Act was supported by all the bishops of the United States. Our own Coadjutor Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote:

I understand that the issue of immigration is a controversial one and one which the nation has grappled with for many years. To date, our elected officials have not been able to come to a fruitful compromise, one which protects the integrity of our nation’s borders and security but also provides a humane solution for the millions of persons now in limbo. It might take more time before the nation reaches a consensus on how best to fix our national immigration system.

At this current moment, however, our federal elected officials can provide a remedy for a very vulnerable group of immigrants—young persons who entered the United States with their parents years ago. Their futures are limited because of their undocumented status, yet they have so much to give to our communities and nation.

These young people entered the United States as children, following the direction of their parents, as we would all do in the same situation. The United States is the only country that they know. They have incredible talent and energy and are waiting for the chance to fully contribute their skills to our country. We would be foolhardy to deny them that chance.

Additional statements from the USCCB and individual bishops on the DREAM Act are available at the URL above. Sadly, the Senate decided to leave tens of thousands of children, teenagers and young adults in limbo, insisting that they be sent to distant nations they have never visited and whose language and culture is unknown to them.

I hope you can see I was not merely expressing my own opinion, but inviting our community to reflect on the humanity of immigrants and their basic human rights as articulated by our Christian tradition throughout the ages. It is not for me to outline precise changes to our broken immigration system, but many of our bishops have provided some very useful guidelines for reform. We cannot insist on precise adherence to laws that do not work. If the laws don’t work, the answer is not ever more stringent enforcement, but to reform those laws so they are just and enforceable.

The respect we owe to the immigrant is deeply rooted in our Jewish heritage. Today some folks quote Leviticus to justify draconian approaches, but consider this call to compassion from that book:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33)

St. Joseph was also an alien in the land of Egypt, as all our ancestors were aliens in this nation. My own ancestors, and probably yours, would not qualify to enter this nation under our current immigration laws. To me, that seems somewhat opposed to what the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which she called “Mother of Exiles”:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

I hope this has been helpful to you, and I stand ready to serve you in further discussion of this issue. Again, thank you for your thoughtful letter.

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