The Coming Catholic Movement for Freedom of Migration

Let me begin by quoting most of the US Council of Catholic Bishops’ statement on immigration reform, from August 2013. After a short intro describing the problem, they summarizing Catholic social teaching on immigration thus:

The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: “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.” Catholic Catechism, 2241. The second duty is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. Sovereign nations have the right to enforce their laws and all persons must respect the legitimate exercise of this right: “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.” Catholic Catechism, 2241. In January 2003, the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter on migration entitled, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” In their letter, the Bishops stressed that, “[w]hen persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.” No. 35. The Bishops made clear that the “[m]ore powerful economic nations…ave a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” No. 36.

This statement is very, very encouraging.

First, immigration is declared to be, not a privilege, but a right, even a “natural right.” Citizenists typically assume that states may and should admit immigrants only inasmuch as this serves the interests of natives. I am not a citizenist, but I can argue for open borders within a citizenist ethical framework.  But the idea of a right to migrate, for which I have often argued before, is a much more favorable place to start the argument. It is interesting for me to see the word “right” in a document published by the Catholic bishops, since the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once upon a time persuaded me that there are no such things as natural rights. I’ve since changed my mind and decided MacIntyre was wrong. It seems that on that metaphysical question, the Catholic bishops are on my side and not MacIntyre’s. By the way, I am not aware of any other such high-profile advocacy of the right to migrate. Andrew Yuengert makes a Christian case for the right to migrate, but it’s wonderful to see the idea endorsed by the Catholic bishops.

Government, it is declared, must accommodate the right to migrate “to the greatest extent possible.” This phrase might give restrictionists some cover, but not much. In the most literal sense, it gives none at all: for governments not to interfere with migration is clearly possible. But “the greatest extent possible” might plausibly be interpreted as “the greatest extent consistent with public order,” and it might be reasonably suggested that the more than 100 million people who would immigrate under open borders is more than public order in the US could withstand. All right then, but certainly the US could absorb far more immigrants than it does today. We are not on the verge of a societal collapse, not even close. We could let in a million more immigrants per year, and if that doesn’t cause societal collapse, a million more. Let’s find out what “the greatest extent possible” really is.

The Catholic bishops seem less favorable to the open borders cause when they say that governments have a “duty to secure [their] border” and “a right to enforce their laws.” But what does “secure the border” mean here? Restrictionists would like us to believe that “securing the border” means having absolute say-so over who gets into a country. A more minimalist definition would define securing the border merely as protecting a country’s territory and people from armed invasion. Open borders advocates would happily accept that governments should secure the border in that sense. The Catholic bishops do not make clear what they mean by “secure the border,” but their positions and policy recommmendations seem inconsistent with “securing the border” in the full, immigration restrictionist sense. The government is not able to do that even with its current draconian policies, and the Catholic bishops take a firm stand against those.

Twice, the bishops say that in enforcing the law, the state should act “for the sake of the common good.” Whose common good? The common good of US citizens only? This interpretation seems untenable. The most natural interpretation of the phrase “common good” is the common good of all mankind, or at least of everyone affected by US immigration policy. It can hardly be doubted that immigration restrictions imposed “for the common good” would be far more liberal than current policies.

The bishops state that “political authorities… may make the exercise of the right to migrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.” This is a step back, I suppose, from the purest form of an open borders doctrine, but it seems consistent with DRITI, and I have no objection to it. In stressing “immigrants’ duties to their country of adoption” and their “oblig[ation] 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,” the bishops concede much to natives who are worried about assimilation. Though I would note with satisfaction that they don’t actually use the term “assimilation,” which to my mind is the wrong place to put one’s emphasis, for immigrants may bring peculiar virtues which we would not want “assimilated” away. In any case, what these concessions do not seem to do is to give any warrant for simply excluding anyone. Anyone who fulfills the “juridical conditions” and “duties” may “exercise… the right to immigrate.” At any rate, that seems to be the most natural reading.

In contrast to the many advocates of greater openness to “high-skilled immigration,” the Catholic bishops put special emphasis on the right to migrate of the poor. The bishops’ language provides warrants for asserting a general right to migrate, but they are clearest in asserting a right to migrate for people who are unable to make a living in their home countries: “they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive.” And it almost seems that the usual duty to obey the law disappears in such cases. For the bishops say that “all persons must respect the legitimate [my emphasis] exercise of” sovereign nations’ right to enforce their laws; and is it a legitimate exercise of sovereign power to exclude destitute people from their chance to earn a living?

If the right to migrate trumps the duty to obey the law only in cases of desperate economic necessity, who is to be the judge of when economic necessity is desperate enough? I suppose it must be individuals, under the guidance of their spiritual pastors. The Catholic bishops do seem to think some individuals ought to say, “I would benefit by illegally migrating to the US, but I don’t really need to, so I won’t.” But do they endorse a sovereign state saying, “we don’t think you really need to come here, so we won’t let you in?” I would lean to saying no. What is clear is that they don’t endorse any state saying, “we can see that you desperately need to come here, but we don’t feel like letting you in, so you’re out of luck.”

After this statement of principles, the bishops get more specific:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) opposes “enforcement only” immigration policies and supports comprehensive immigration reform. In Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. Catholic Bishops outlined the elements of their proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. These include:

Earned Legalization: An earned legalization program would allow foreign nationals of good moral character who are living in the United States to apply to adjust their status to obtain lawful permanent residence. Such a program would create an eventual path to citizenship, requiring applicants to complete and pass background checks, pay a fine, and establish eligibility for resident status to participate in the program. Such a program would help stabilize the workforce, promote family unity, and bring a large population “out of the shadows,” as members of their communities.

Future Worker Program: A worker program to permit foreign‐born workers to enter the country safely and legally would help reduce illegal immigration and the loss of life in the American desert. Any program should include workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity.

Family‐based Immigration Reform: It currently takes years for family members to be reunited through the family‐based legal immigration system. This leads to family breakdown and, in some cases, illegal immigration. Changes in family‐based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.

Restoration of Due Process Rights: Due process rights taken away by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) should be restored. For example, the three and ten year bars to reentry should be eliminated.

Addressing Root Causes: Congress should examine the root causes of migration, such as under‐development and poverty in sending countries, and seek long‐term solutions. The antidote to the problem of illegal immigration is sustainable economic development in sending countries. In an ideal world, migration should be driven by choice, not necessity.

Enforcement: The U.S. Catholic Bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States. The Bishops also believe that by increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would‐be terrorists. Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane.

This is mostly encouraging, though obviously it falls short of open borders. I applaud the insistence on family reunification. That it is morally unacceptable for borders to serve as a motive for the forcible separation of families by governments would be a good principle to establish. Reduced family reunification wait times would accelerate immigration. Restoration of due process would ameliorate the cruelty of the immigration regime and make enforcement more difficult.

Perhaps most welcome is the “future worker program,” which if broad enough would amount to open borders. I would quibble with the “living wage levels” requirement, which seem economically fallacious. What if a foreigner with savings but no opportunity to earn money at home would like to come to the US and work, even though he won’t be able to earn a living wage, but will be able to live off his wage plus his savings? Should we shut him out and leave him to starve abroad? Why? More generally, wage determination is best left to the market. And I hope “safeguards against the displacement of US workers” could take the form of DRITI rather than of an attempt to micromanage labor markets in order to protect specific jobs. But it’s very encouraging that the bishops specifically call for letting in more workers, and not just “high-skilled” ones, either.

Moreover, the call to “address the root causes” of migration, “such as under-development and poverty in sending countries,” if taken seriously, would point back to open borders. Many leading economists would endorse the view that some kind of open migration policy would be by far the most effective way to solve global problems of under-development and poverty.

The bishops “accept the legitimate role of the US government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States,” but then what? The bishops want law enforcement to “focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would-be terrorists.” To do that, law enforcement will have to intercept unauthorized migrants. But do the bishops think the US has a legitimate role in sending home migrants whose only motive is to work and feed their families? Their language seems designed to avoid saying so. Instead, they want to reduce the illegal immigration problem by “increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the United States.” By how much? The natural answer seems to be, “until the point where no honorably motivated migrant would have reason to cross the border illegally.” And that is virtually a warrant for open borders.

What do they mean by “targeted, proportional, and humane” enforcement measures? “Targeted” seems to mean: target genuine criminals, not peaceful workers. “Proportional” suggests that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. What punishment is proportional to the victimless crime of illegal immigration? It seems doubtful whether this “crime” deserves any punishment at all, but certainly deportation and many years’ exile away from one’s family seems wildly disproportionate to it. To deport those who immigrate as minors, perhaps even as children, seems clearly to violate “proportionality.” And can separation of families ever be humane?

Again, the bishops advocate “earned legalization,” which would doubtless create expectations of future “earned legalizations,” and therefore would accelerate illegal immigration. The bishops don’t admit this, but they don’t deny it either. They claim that the program will “help stabilize the workforce”– I assume this means putting an end to the disruption of employment arrangements by deportation– “promote family unity, and bring a large population ‘out of the shadows.'” Earned legalization can achieve these ends quite nicely even as it provides the impetus for a new wave of undocumented immigration.

To put the Catholic bishops’ statement into perspective, it may help to recall the history of the Christian struggle against slavery. The Christian Church’s first priority has always been to save souls, to transform people morally and from within, rather than to alter laws and institutions. It is not indifferent to the latter. Indeed, it could not be, for laws and institutions affect the salvation of souls. A wicked institution may have considerable power to corrupt people. Yet a man’s soul can be saved while in slavery, and probably even a slaveowner’s soul can be saved, or at least, it could in times when slavery was more normal. Of the ancient wealthy philanthropists Pinianus and Melania, it is recorded that:

Not only did they provide charity out of their surplus, Melania and Pinianus gave of themselves. They freed their 8,000 slaves in two years, but the slaves refused to be freed, so they transferred themselves to Pinianus’s brother.

The slaves refused to be freed. That’s not as strange as it sounds, if you consider that to be a freed slave without property in 4th century Italy (soon to be overrun by Visigoths) was to be deprived of a powerful protector. Without a market capitalist economy and a social safety net, people may well prefer to be the slaves or serfs of a great and benevolent family to an unattached, uncertain, and interstitial life of “freedom” which your experience, education, and life plans have not equipped you to lead.

So it may be no bad thing that, instead of trying to abolish slavery even by moral suasion, the apostles Peter and Paul urged slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat their servants kindly. They sought to ameliorate slavery, to infuse it with the exercise of the virtues. Nonetheless, Christian piety did, in due course, motivate many people like Pinianus and Melania to give up being slaveholders, and eventually they set a new pattern for society. By the 10th century, unprecedentedly, slavery had vanished from all but the periphery of western Europe. By modern times, Europe had centuries of experience of being a society without slavery, but the overthrow of the Church’s influence by the powerful princes of the Renaissance and Reformation created an opening for slavery to be re-established, if not (or not much) in Europe proper, then in the vast new overseas possessions which trade and technology were bringing within Europeans’ grasp. The popes vigorously condemned the new slavery, but eventually acquiesced in what they lacked power to stop, trying, as in ancient times, to ameliorate slavery rather than to abolish it. But in modern times, the Christian fervor of William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, and many others drove the abolitionist cause forward to fresh victories, not only in Europe but worldwide this time.

Even I would hesitate to say that Christian churches today ought to support open borders, for the same reasons I would hesitate to say that St. Peter and St. Paul ought to have insisted on the abolition of slavery. Christian churches’ priority should be to save souls, and great public injustices may often be less of an impediment to salvation than many private temptations are. Even if church leaders were quite certain that a more perfect Christian society would free all slaves or welcome all immigrants, they ought to be wary of taking political stances that will alienate some members of their flocks and cut them off from the church’s beneficent influence. Anyway, Christian clergy are not generally trained in law or economics and may well hesitate to dictate to parishioners on practical matters that they do not fully understand.

What I would ask the Christian churches to do is much closer to what they seem to be doing, namely, take baby steps towards open borders, but authoritatively. Insist that natives must love immigrants, that hatred or anger or resentment towards them is unacceptable. Insist that natives must stand ready to include immigrants in their Christian communities (if they are willing of course). Romans 13 is generally read as a comprehensive endorsement of secular governments, though I don’t think that reading quite works. If it is read that way, a Christian might conclude that undocumented immigrants should be encouraged to repent and confess, and in any case, undocumented immigrants will be tempted to tell lies. But Christians who consider the matter seriously in the light of their faith will surely tend to conclude that America should, or must, offer to undocumented immigrants what every Christian must, after all, hope for from God: amnesty. After all, if illegal immigration is a sin, aren’t we all sinners? Isn’t forgiveness one of Jesus’s most consistent and emphatic themes? Then again, what if an immigrant really did have no other way to feed his family, or to escape persecution?

Rather than taking a stand on the “macro” question of open borders, I would hope to see Christians fight at the micro level against deportation, “enforcement,” and anti-immigrant attitudes, and for expanding the opportunities of the foreign-born poor through migration and integrating immigrants into the community. As with slavery, ameliorate rather than abolish; but ameliorate in ways that ultimately lead to abolition. This is what I think the Catholic bishops are doing. They are not definitely laying down a doctrine of open borders, but the concessions they make to state power are quite insufficient to achieve the kind of migration control that modern “sovereign” states like to pretend to. Immigration control and enforcement are accepted in theory, but the legitimate ends that are suggested as motivating them– “the common good,” “threats to public safety”– cannot justify anything like the present immigration regime. The principles the bishops articulate clearly point towards liberalization of migration and seem satisfiable by nothing short of open borders. The policies they recommend would greatly expand immigration and would tend to eviscerate enforcement further.

My co-blogger John Lee recently asked, “Why Don’t Christians Care More About Open Borders?” He finds the Christian case for open borders convincing, but says that “migration hardly seems to be on the Christian agenda, if it is there at all.”

But it is there. Certainly, very few individual Christians support open borders, and I am aware of no public statements in favor of open borders from Christian churches. But conservative evangelical leader Richard Land has supported Obama’s immigration reform proposals. Evangelicals from across the political spectrum have come together to support immigration reform. Social scientist Benjamin Knoll has found that church attendance is positively associated with more liberal attitudes towards immigration. The abstract of Knoll’s paper is as follows:

This study explores immigration reform as a possible new “moral” issue upon which American religious elites and organizations take public positions. It is argued that religion is a key independent variable necessary for understanding the determinants of public attitudes regarding immigration policy. Theoretical expectations are formed from the ethnoreligious, religious restructuralism, and minority marginalization frameworks. Quantitative evidence is presented which demonstrates that those who attend religious services more frequently are more likely to support liberal immigration reform policies. Members of minority religions, notably Jews and Latter-day Saints, are also more likely to empathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants and support liberal immigration reform measures.

The overall effect here is rather small, and it must be teased out of a thicket of control variables. Another paper, “Divine Boundaries: How Religion Shapes Citizens’ Attitudes Towards Immigrants,” finds that immigration is highest in what they call “Tractor Country” and “Evangelical Epicenters,” and put forward the hypothesis that opposition to immigration is a function of “Christian nationalism,” the view that “America has a divinely inspired mission and link its success to God’s favor.” Of course, a belief in America’s divine mission could go the other way: if America is supposed to be a “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14-16) shining light to the world, that might be a good reason to welcome immigrants who want to come and be enlightened. Still, I find the “Christian nationalism” hypothesis plausible, in the sense that there do seem to be heartlander/middle America types for whom Christianity, and Protestantism in particular, is a sort of badge of national identity, and they feel vaguely threatened by foreigners and nonwhites and maybe Catholics too because they’re different. This Pew study is also interesting. Pew finds that “seculars are the most willing to welcome immigrants permanently,” but on the other hand that the “most religiously committed are less negative towards immigrants.” Having noted at the beginning that many church leaders have issued pro-immigrant statements, Pew concludes that:

While church shepherds may not be getting through to all of their flock, they may be having better luck reaching their most attentive parishioners.

Simplifying greatly, we can think of the devout, on the one hand, and the secular, on the other, as pro-immigration, while the greatest resistance to immigration comes from lukewarm Christians. Now, one response to this is to hope that a decline of religion in America, similar to the decline in religion that has taken place in Europe, will lead to greater support for open borders. But a useful recent comment by Hansjoerg Walther confirms my impression that Europe is not more pro-immigrant than the US, on balance probably a bit less so, though Europeans seem to have more scruples about deportation, and the EU’s internal open borders are inspiring as far as they go.

Why, then, are American seculars more pro-immigration than European seculars? My casual theory is that (a) minorities are often more pro-immigrant because they want to dilute the majority, and (b) to be secular in a society where religion has a pervasive influence involves a kind of critical thinking and resistance to authority. Americans who reject God are likely to have less-than-usual belief in law-and-order, too, and anyway they welcome foreign seculars, Buddhists, Muslims, Confucians, anything to dilute the Christian majority. But if a majority of Americans were post-religious, seculars wouldn’t be self-selected for critical thinking and resistance to authority, and they wouldn’t want to dilute their secularist majority with an infusion of religious foreigners.

I see devout Christians as a more promising resource for the open borders cause, because, though most of them don’t know it yet, they have a firm, principled reason for being pro-immigration: the Bible is unabashedly pro-immigrant. Christians are urged to care for the poor and needy, indeed to treat them as if they were Christ: “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” They are instructed to care for foreigners, e.g. in the story of the Good Samaritan, or in the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Old Testament law is favorable to immigrants to the point that it could well be embraced by the open borders movement as a template of the kind of immigration policy we would want to see. Its influence is blunted by the fact that Christians cannot but regard the Mosaic law as in some way or degree superseded by the New Testament teachings. But the New Testament teachings don’t provide any warrant for immigration restrictions either, and if anything seem even more incompatible with them. The Catholic bishops’ statement is consistent with all this.

I think Christianity’s pro-migration message can only grow louder with time. I expect it to propagate from the inside out, from the leadership, to the most devout, and gradually to the less devout. As with abortion, those who want to adopt a position contrary to Christian teachings will be increasingly faced with a choice between recanting on a particular issue and growing alienation from the faith. Immigration advocates within the churches will be encouraged to speak out and mobilize. Restrictionists will be cowed into silence, perhaps driven to soul-searching and repentance. Already, America’s most devoutly Christian recent president, George W. Bush, was a strong advocate of immigration reform. Except more of that. Expect Catholic hierarchs to speak out more and more loudly.

But there will be continued deference on the part of the Catholic hierarchy and other Christian churches to mass public opinion and to elite views. That’s where we come in. By mustering arguments and evidence in favor of open borders, we make it easier for Catholic and other Christian leaders to push harder in the direction they already clearly want to go. So be bold, lovers of freedom of migration. The Catholic Church has got our backs.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

10 thoughts on “The Coming Catholic Movement for Freedom of Migration”

  1. A more minimalist definition would define securing the border merely as protecting a country’s territory and people from armed invasion. Open borders advocates would happily accept that governments should secure the border in that sense.

    Immigration *is* armed invasion. Sure, most of the immigrants aren’t armed, but they are brought here under force of arms by the central government.

  2. I see pretty much zero biblical support included in your essay. The shining city on the hill and great commission references are blatant distortions of scripture, the first irrelevant and the second supporting national boundaries and identity.

    1. I would be interested in how you could claim that the Great Commission supports “national boundaries and identity,” when, for starters, Jesus is obviously sending the apostles abroad to convert foreigners… As John says, we’ve written extensively on the Biblical case for open borders before, it’s strikingly one-sided and emphatic. Follow the links.

  3. Why is the Catholic church not welcoming immigration via open borders into the Vatican city (one of the richest places in the world) or the Holy Land (Israel)?

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