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The Last Word - September 2016

Immigration and Church Teaching

Election time will be quickly upon us, and among the many issues is that of immigration.  In that light, it is good that we review the teaching of the Church on this matter.  The Church's teaching can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in various documents of the Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  It should be noted that this teaching goes back at least as far as Pope Pius XII at the end of World War II.  It is not a new teaching.

The Church recognizes several complementary rights.  The first of these is the right of a nation to control its borders in the interest of the common good of its citizens.  It is a duty of the state to put into place an orderly process whereby those seeking to immigrate can do so within reasonable limits.  However, that right is not absolute.

The Church also recognizes that all peoples have the right to conditions worthy of the inherent dignity of every human person.  The first priority, then, should be to address the causes of migration.  That is, issues such as poverty, injustice, religious or ethnic persecution, and armed conflicts must be addressed so that people can remain in their native lands.

If these necessary conditions for human dignity are not present in their native place, the wealthier nations of the world have an obligation to assist these peoples to attain those goods in their native place through assistance with economic development.  But if this fails, due to corruption, war, extreme poverty, or any other cause, then people have the right to move to a place where such conditions can be realized.  At that point, the right of nations to control their borders must be measured against the needs of those seeking entry and the capacity of that nation to receive them.  Naturally, those countries with the most resources also have a proportionately greater obligation to receive such persons.

In this regard, I would point out that for decades migrants have come to the United States, often without proper documentation, with the explicit or at least implicit promise of work, especially in the agriculture, construction, and service industries.  Existing law has made it very difficult for a person to enter the country for low-skilled work, while at the same time, there has been a growing need for low-skilled workers and a shrinking pool of such legal workers available.  For all the political rhetoric, it is simply a fact that the government and industry for a long time quietly acquiesced to the migration of peoples into the country, even when not in conformity with the law, because of the need for cheap labor.  Thus, the many millions who have entered the country, found employment, paid taxes, learned English, and raised families here in express violation of immigration law, while for the most part, authorities turned a purposeful blind eye.  The point being that the country is capable of absorbing considerably more legal migrants than it does currently and so we have been doing in contravention of our own laws.  Furthermore, in states where the population is aging, we are in great need of such young workers.

Thus the need, stonewalled by the political parties and process for over a decade now for political advantage, has been for a comprehensive revision of our laws to establish a rational process of legal immigration that allows and even encourages necessary and desirable immigration and does not unduly punish those who entered illegally, when our system, through the government's sometimes willful neglect, was allowed to be broken because of the fact that the need for new workers and the ability of the economy to absorb them was plain.

Finally, a personal note.  My grandfather came from Denmark to the United States in 1900.  After arriving in New York, he went by train through Buffalo to Detroit and then on to Grand Rapids, Michigan.  There, he got off the train and went into the town.  He writes: “At 11 o’clock, I went into the city with my revolver in my pocket.  On the train, there is no danger.  On the street, we are responsible for ourselves.  We must be careful.  There is always someone that would like to test the immigrant.”  Maybe there are grandfathers like him in your family history.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal