May 18, 2010

Illegal Immigration and Catholic Social Teaching

By Father Thomas Berg *
Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed the Arizona Immigration Bill (SB 1070) on April 23. The Catholic bishops of Arizona and an interfaith network of Arizona religious leaders responded with an emotionally charged statement accusing the governor of sacrificing "political courage for political expediency" and suggesting the law is an affront to human dignity and runs afoul of the basic moral precept directing us to welcome the stranger.  

I must admit I have been taken aback at how many Catholic voices have been making fine arguments about a proper, genuinely Catholic attitude toward immigrants (presumably those who enter the country legally), while entirely missing (and arguing right past) the issue at hand, namely, illegal immigration.
And I confess to have problems with all the invective coming from Catholic sources and directed at the Arizona law, particularly when it rests firmly on the principle of rule of law which is in turn itself derived from the natural moral law.

That this invective has been disproportionate (to not say misguided) becomes evident when we stop and consider what the Arizona law actually says: when law enforcement officers have a reasonable suspicion that a person is an alien unlawfully present in the U.S., they may demand to see immigration papers on the spot, and may detain a suspected illegal alien who fails to present appropriate documentation. National Review's Rich Lowry has explained how such "reasonable suspicion" might work in practice -- his point being that it is quite readily workable and has legal precedence and praxis.  So in looking at the text of the law on its merits, we must ask: is there anything unreasonable about it, much less draconian, fascist or grossly abrasive to human dignity?  Arguably, according to a recent poll, 61% of Americans don't think so.

How then does Catholic social teaching confront the question of immigration, broadly speaking, and illegal immigration more specifically?

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church structures a discussion of "immigration" by placing it in the section under the "right to work," a fundamental human right affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in its Apostolic Constitution Gaudium et Spes.  It notes that "in most cases...immigrants fill a labor need which would otherwise remain unfilled in sectors and territories where the local workforce is insufficient or unwilling to engage in the work in question." It then calls for host countries to be vigilant to protect against the exploitation of laborers, to treat them with "equity and balance," to strive to integrate them into society, to defend the right of immigrants to be reunited with their families, and to promote work opportunities for them.
To my knowledge, however, the Compendium does not suggest that the principle of rule of law should be subordinated somehow to the exigencies of the above mentioned rights.  SB 1070 does no injustice to an illegal immigrant forced to forfeit his presence in the U.S. even when that means a temporary separation from family members already here. Such an eventuality is -- for any illegal alien -- a foreseeable potential consequence of breaking the law; responsibility for the attendant hardships brought about by such a breakup rests squarely on the shoulders of the illegal alien, not on the community where he resides and into which he has patently failed to integrate through the observance of the law.

To be sure, ideal immigration laws will uphold the principle of rule of law while taking into account the impracticality and imprudence of simply deporting thousands of illegal aliens who have already integrated themselves into the U.S. work force. On this score, SB 1070 is perhaps an imperfect law, but its measured application under the rubric of "reasonable suspicion" does not, in principle, harm the common good or constitute an affront to justice or personal dignity.

That said, it is by now obvious that SB 1070 is nothing less than an act of legislative exasperation in the face of federal policies which have failed miserably to protect state borders and impede the flow of drug traffic through the State.  We might hope that SB 1070 can serve in the long run to catalyze the push for effective and just national immigration policies -- policies that will deal effectively with our porous national borders; get at the roots of drug and human trafficking; and lower barriers to immigration to those persons who honestly seek to work in the U.S. and integrate into American society abiding by the rule of law.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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