Immigration and Our Nation's Future
by Most. Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, Archbishop of Denver
and Most. Rev. Michael J. Sheridan, Bishop of Colorado Springs and Apostolic Administrator of Pueblo
October 1, 2013
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Immigration is a phenomenon America has experienced countless times over the centuries and with each wave of new arrivals to our shores comes a discussion of how we should react.
Because what is decided about our immigration laws will have long-lasting material and spiritual consequences, we have decided to write this pastoral letter to emphasize some of the moral principles that should be considered in the discussion.
Before going into details, however, we want to make clear that this letter should not be seen as an endorsement of any specific legislation currently being considered. Too often what starts as good legislation ends up tarnished by all the add-ons legislators make.
America needs to reform its immigration laws across the board, but establishing the specifics of those new regulations is the job of lawmakers, not pastors. Our job is to teach about the moral values that should shape those laws, and that is what this letter aims to accomplish.
In a particular way, we hope that this letter will help form and guide the consciences of Catholics – especially those who hold public offices – and others of good will.
A CATHOLIC WORLDVIEW
The shift in size and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population over the past 50 years has been very significant. In 1965, 85 percent of the population was non-Hispanic/Latino-Whites. By 2050, whites are officially predicted to be a minority, in a population that will have increased to nearly 600 million from its current size of 316 million.
Besides the profound changes that this demographic shift is making in American society, the debate is also being fueled by news coverage of raids on businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants.
These stories can tempt us to reduce an extremely complex and often tragic situation to a simplistic “us” vs. “them” motif, the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys.” We can narrowly brand undocumented immigrants as “lawbreakers” or “illegals,” and demand that the full weight of the law be used to keep them out.
But if we approach this issue with a Catholic worldview, that is, if we think with the Church and try to see immigrants through the eyes of Christ, then a shift should occur in our minds and hearts.
Our challenge as Christians is to remember Jesus’ teaching that at the Final Judgment he will separate those who served him from those who did not.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Mt. 25:34-36).’”
Furthermore, we must remember that most of us in this country come from families with immigrant roots and that America continues to receive new arrivals every day.
The United States admits around 1.1 million people each year as lawful permanent residents. This rivals the total number of immigrants permitted by all other nations and states in the world put together. Estimates place the number of immigrants who enter the U.S. unlawfully each year and plan to be permanent or indefinite residents at between 750,000 and 1.5 million.
Regardless of the legal status of the immigrants in our communities, Jesus gives us the standard of welcoming them in his name. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Mt. 25:40).”
The gravity of the question of the impact of immigration, both legal and illegal, on the welfare of our nation, or any nation, is of unprecedented importance.
For this reason we offer these seven principles, which are grounded in the master principle of Catholic moral teaching, namely, the truth that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God and therefore has dignity from the moment of conception until natural death.
We hope that these principles, which move from the most basic to the more specific, will assist you in developing an ethically balanced view of the many goods that are at stake in this difficult issue.
While responding to the many questions raised by immigration will not be easy, you and I cannot fail in our duty as Catholic citizens to do our best to make decisions that improve and maintain the social, moral and spiritual health of our great nation and those who seek membership within it.
1. The principle of the common good
The Second Vatican Council defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”
In terms of the seven principles listed in this letter, the principle of the common good is the most foundational. It enters into the immigration debate when questions arise about the impact of immigrants – both legal and illegal – on communities, as well as when people are forced to leave their homes because of dangerous or dire circumstances.
Catholic social teaching, especially over the last 120 years, has not failed to repeat that every able member of the community, especially those in positions of public authority, has a grave responsibility to work to preserve and promote the common good.
Every community has a common good, from the widest community of the human race down to the smallest stable social unit in society, the family.
The United States, too, has a common good. It exists in the individual good of each member of the community, in his or her bodily and spiritual life, in the peace and stability of families and neighborhoods, in the shared goods of common morality, religious beliefs and traditions, in the common property of the state and nation, in economic opportunity, and more intangibly in the common sympathies and trust resulting from shared language, history, memories and sufferings.
In practice, this means that the only meaningful goal for the common good is the integral fulfillment of the human person in community.
In modern Western society, the common good is sometimes misconstrued as being what is good for the individual but without any thought of eternity, without any consideration of how a person’s soul is impacted by a possible action. This is an error that must be avoided.
2. The universal destination of the world’s resources and the right to private property
In Catholic teaching, the right to ownership has always been understood as being qualified by the duty to use property in a socially responsible way, in a way that supports the common good, especially the good of the poor. This responsibility arises from a theological truth: when God created the universe he intended the earth with all its resources for the use of everyone. No one “owns” the earth in an absolute sense; everyone is a steward.
This principle enters into the immigration discussion in cases where people’s lives are at stake because of poverty, a lack of food or resources. The fact that God gave creation to everyone means that when people cannot meet their basic subsistent needs or those of their families, the right to private property yields to the universal destination of goods.
The Fathers of the Church taught that the right to private property should never be exercised in a way contrary to the common good.
Pope Paul VI interpreted this as requiring that “surplus goods” not needed for the reasonable fulfillment of a person’s vocation should be used to benefit those in serious need. “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life,” he wrote in his encyclical Populorum Progressio.
At the same time, the Church also upholds the right to private property. This means that except in circumstances where lives are at stake, private property should be respected.
Both Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), and before that Saint Thomas Aquinas and his predecessors, affirm that property rights are of vital importance for the dignity, just liberty, and well-being of communities, families and their individual members.
3. The dignity and rights of all migrants, including undocumented people, should be respected and protected
Those countries who receive immigrants have a duty to treat them as people in whom the face of Christ can be seen. This obligation is rooted in the human dignity that every person receives from God and it rests first of all with nations that are wealthier and more stable.
Because of every person’s God-given dignity, the Christian response to immigrants should be one of hospitality that rejects all sentiments and manifestations of xenophobia and racism.
When it comes to guest workers – meaning seasonal or temporary personnel – host countries should respect their human dignity by helping them locate decent housing. In his 2004 message for World Migration Day, Pope John Paul II also highlighted the importance of treating guest workers justly and not placing them at an unfair disadvantage in comparison with other workers.
4. The creation of nations and the right to control borders are legitimate
The Church teaches that the creation of nations and states with sovereign boundaries does not contradict the principle of the universal destination of the world’s resources because it favors an internally just political order.
For this reason, the Church also states that each government has the duty to protect and control its borders for the sake of the common good.
The current immigration situation has tested this right in ways that Pope John Paul II analyzed in 2001 and 2004.
On the one hand, he acknowledged that indiscriminate immigration can cause “harm and be detrimental to the common good of the community that receives the migrant.”
But on the other hand, he also insisted that nations should control their borders with “full respect for the dignity of the (migrating) persons and for their families’ needs.”
The U.S. and Mexican bishops’ conferences applied this principle more specifically in their joint 2003 Pastoral Letter called “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.”
They advised governments to create policies that protect immigrants against excessively punitive or harsh treatment by border patrol agents. When it comes to using force, they said it should only be used “to protect the physical well-being of both the enforcement officer and the migrant.”
Finally, the bishops urged that illegal immigrants, most especially unaccompanied minors, not be treated as criminals by civil enforcement authorities and that they “be detained for the least amount of time possible.” They should also have access to “the necessary medical, legal, and spiritual services.”
This presents governments with the difficult and important task of developing border control policies that both respect the dignity of the immigrants and their families, and safeguard the spiritual, material and cultural wellbeing of the nation.
Achieving this balance requires differentiating between immigrants and refugees, as well as carefully discerning the reasons immigrants are seeking entrance into the country.
5. The right to emigrate and respect for local laws
The Church has continually taught that people have a natural right to emigrate, that is, to leave their country in search of better economic and social conditions for themselves and their families.
This also includes a corresponding right not to emigrate, as Pope John Paul II noted in his 2004 Message for World Migration Day, where he highlighted issues that prompt people to leave their homeland. In particular, he listed “freedom of expression and movement” and “the possibility to satisfy basic needs such as food, health care, work, housing and education.”
In the case of those who leave their own country and seek a home abroad, Pope John XXIII taught that they are obliged to “recognize the duty to honor the countries…and to respect the laws, culture and traditions of the people who have welcomed them.”
However, people who are not in grave need and enter the U.S. or any other country in defiance of its laws harm the rights and interests of those who wish to enter it lawfully, including the many thousands of close relatives of those who are legally living there.
In the United States, for example, the annual quota for family preference residence visas currently stands at 226,000, and the waiting list is quite long.
6. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection
Because of the serious dangers refugees face, the international community has a more serious obligation to accommodate their requests for asylum than it does for those who emigrate from countries that have a more stable social situation.
Benedict XVI refers to refugees and displaced people as “de facto the weakest and most defenseless” and says they should be given “priority attention.” John Paul II also urged special protections for refugees “who, although they have fled from their countries for reasons unforeseen by international conventions, could indeed be seriously risking their life were they obliged to return to their homeland.”
He exhorts Catholics to tirelessly “call on the political authorities of the different States … to grant refugee status to those who have left their country of origin because of threats to their life, to help them return to their countries, and to create conditions favoring respect for the dignity of all immigrants and the defense of their fundamental rights.”
Refugees’ urgent need for political asylum requires that public authorities must make realistic distinctions between the interests of those seeking greater economic opportunities and the rights of evacuees to be free from starvation or real persecution.
7. Authentic integration of immigrants and the enforcement of laws
Experience shows that when a society is too ethnically and culturally diverse it can give rise to political instability. Therefore, when politicians make decisions about immigration policies, the question of integration cannot be overlooked.
Those who are in public office must not be indifferent to the importance of ethnic and cultural coherence. The community must ask: What are people being integrated into? How will diverse communities interrelate? What degree of cultural homogeneity is required in order to maintain a community strong enough to welcome new members?
All these questions must be weighed against the risk of communities losing their coherence and common values, which are also subject to other corrupting influences not tied to immigration.
At the same time, host countries should not insist on “pure and simple integration” that strips new arrivals of those things which are good in their culture and could enrich the local society.
It is within the context of pursuing the common good of the local community and broader humanity that reasonable limitations on immigration can be legitimate and even required.
But passing just laws is not enough. The laws also need enforcement. And the sanctions for their violation should fall most heavily upon those who knowingly employ people who are in the country illegally because they are the ones who provide the chief incentive for illegality.
Businessmen who employ undocumented immigrants also frequently exploit their vulnerability by paying them less than any citizen would accept to do the same job. And they make it hard for employers who are unwilling to hire illegally—or willing to hire but pay fairly—to compete in certain industries where their competitors hire and pay poorly. Therefore, the penalties for employing undocumented workers should be severe enough to deter people from committing this offense.
While this letter is not intended to provide specific legislative solutions to the complex issue of immigration, we believe that it offers some essential principles that should guide our public debate.
Our current immigration laws do not do enough to respect and protect the God-given dignity all of us have received, and they no longer correspond to the modern realities of globalized economies.
Every American has a duty to help bring about reform in this arena, keeping in mind Jesus’ exhortation to help the poor, the hungry, the stranger and the imprisoned.
We must respond by asking God for wisdom as King Solomon did. God is both infinitely just and merciful, and the immigration situation America is facing requires the wise application of both justice and mercy.
Finally, we would like to entrust the immigration discussion and the decision-making process to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, you brought millions of people to Jesus, the author of all human life and the origin of every person’s dignity. Through your intercession, we ask that a respect for all people be present in our immigration discussion and reflected in our laws.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L.
Archbishop of Denver
Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, S.T.D.
Bishop of Colorado Springs
Apostolic Administrator of Pueblo