Political PunchFirst Principles of Immigration

Romney Targets Rudy on Immigration,” “Edwards’ Immigration Stance Muddled,” Hillary Uses Flak Over Immigrant Issue as Rallying Cry” – these recent headlines show that immigration is a hot issue in the United States 2008 Presidential election.  The estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. and the hundreds of thousands illegally entering each year have made the issue acute.


Initiatives aimed at reforming our immigration law, including legalizing millions of illegal aliens and expanding the availability of temporary work visas, have been zealously promoted by the White House but zealously rejected in Congress.  Passions runs deep on both sides of the issue.   


Where do you begin in considering this complex issue?  What are the first principles of immigration law and policy? One source of such principles is the social teaching of the Catholic Church.  The social teaching provides principles derived from a considered reflection on the Gospel applied to immigration. But the relevant principles of such teachings also make moral and common sense.


Perhaps the broadest first principles of immigration are the following:  Nations are “obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”[1]  Nations, “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.”[2]


A nation has a duty to welcome the foreigner in search of security and livelihood.  Why is that?  One must consider it from the perspective of the immigrant.  A person has a right to emigrate from his own country when conditions in such country do not provide what is necessary for basic human dignity.[3]   The “right” to immigrate can be considered a specification of the “universal destination of human goods,” a principle of social justice.  “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.”[4] Specifically, a person without the necessities of life for himself and his family in his own country has the right to seek those goods elsewhere.


Well, does this mean the borders are open?  Does policing the border and removing aliens who jump the border violate social justice?  Happily (in particular for those tasked with protecting the border), they do not. Immigration can and should be regulated according to the common good of each nation.  The common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”[5]  Each human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such; it is in the political community that its most complete realization is found.  It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.”[6]


From this it is evident that the United States (and any country) can regulate immigration and protect its borders.  This makes common sense.  The United States has a particular obligation to care for its own citizens, now near 303 million persons.[7] Professor Mary Ann Glendon, recently nominated by President Bush to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, stated that “the nation-state, for all of its weaknesses, allows great numbers of peoples to live together in peace and freedom, with space allowed for the exercise of virtues which promote the common good.” [8] An unrestricted influx of immigrants into the United States would greatly impede civil peace and well-being. Immigration should be restricted keeping the common good of the United States in mind.


One element of the common good of the United States is the “rule of law.”  The common good of our society thrives in part since people know that the laws are respected and enforced.  Does it not hurt rule of law when aliens who illegally enter and reside in the U.S. are rewarded with amnesty and granted legal residence?  This is relevant question to ask.  But to the extent one concludes that the immigration laws of the U.S. should be reformed to more adequately promote a just immigration policy, such reform could include respect for the rule of law.  For example, the failed immigration reform bill proposed by President Bush included provisions whereby illegal aliens would have to pay fines due to their illegal presence in the U.S, and/or return to their native country and then immigrate to the U.S. legally.  


Nevertheless, the obligation of the United States is not limited simply to its own particular common good.  “Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good.”[9]  For that reason, the United States immigration policy must also be concerned with what promotes the social conditions of all persons, even if they are not U.S citizens.  Moreover, there is greater interdependence between the United States and certain countries, such as Mexico, given that we share a common border which brings with it greater social and economic ties.

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Certainly, the United States’ facilitating the admission of hard-working law-abiding immigrants, whose life in their own countries has little human dignity, promotes their social condition. When I drive through the security gates to fly out of Dallas Ft. Worth International Airport, it is often a person of Somali or Ethiopian descent who cheerfully hands me my parking receipt. Their cheerfulness strikes me.  I wonder if their joy comes in part from appreciating their life in the U.S, compared to the horrors from which they fled. 


However, concern for the dignity of non-United States citizen is not simply a matter between the United States and the immigrant. “Migration today is practically an expression of the violation of the primary human right to live in one’s own country.”[10] The point here is that people have the right to live in their own culture without having to flee because of persecution or poverty. (One need only watch a film such as El Norte to appreciate the truth of this statement.[11]) Foreign policy and immigration policy must keep in mind what promotes the economic and social development of foreign nations and the rights of persons to reside in their own nation and culture with human dignity.


A closely related principle to the principle of the universal common good is that of solidarity.  This is a broad term; among other things, the principle recognizes “the bond of interdependence between individuals and peoples,”[12] and a desire for “the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”[13] The principle is implicit in one of the more striking biblical exhortations regarding the alien – “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”[14]  A nation that does not seek to help people in nations less fortunate than itself does not recognize the common aspirations that all men have to further their own development and that of their families. 


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Finally, a key principle of immigration is family reunification.  If someone can legally reside in the United States, his immediate family should be able to reside with him.[15] “The family is a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order.”[16]


The principles set forth above provide a starting point to consider just and effective immigration law and policies. It is in the nature of principles that they are fairly straightforward and abstract.  Applying them is more challenging, in particular given the complexity of immigration and the variety of potential immigrants. But understanding the first principles must come first.



[3] See Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, paragraphs 25, 105.  Under a subsection entitled “The Right to Immigrate,” the Pope states that “when there are just reasons in favor of it, [a person] must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.”  (paragraph 25).   He does not describe what is “just reason.”  However, in 1969, the Holy See stated that  “where a State which suffers from poverty combined with great population cannot supply such use of goods to its inhabitants, or where the State places conditions which offend human dignity, people possess a right to emigrate, to select a new home in foreign lands, and to seek conditions of life worthy of man.”  Instruction on the Pastoral Care of People Who Migrate, (1969), quoted in Terry Coonan, There are no Strangers Among Us: Catholic Social Teachings and U.S. Immigration Law, 40 Catholic Lawyer 105, n. 62  (2000). 

[10] See the Introduction to the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Counsel for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/migrants/documents/rc_pc_migrants_doc_20000601_migr_presentazione_en.html

[14] Leviticus 19:33.

[15] See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, #298 (“The right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.”);  Charter on the Rights of Families, art. 12. (“Emigrant workers have the right to see their family united as soon as possible.”); Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for the 93rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2007)   (“If the immigrant family is not ensured of a real possibility of inclusion and participation, it is difficult to expect its harmonious development.”).

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