Illegal immigration is an enormously vexing issue; in large part because it's one of those classic cases of the issue (what to do about these illegals?) not being the sole issue. Illegal immigration is, in a sense, a malady, and one resulting from many causes. Because of the many causes of illegal immigration, and then the many problems it causes itself, people can and do approach illegal immigration from many different and often opposed perspectives. But let's reflect, for a moment, on immigration from the Catholic perspective.
Poverty and political and social vulnerability are the primary engines of immigration. The poor and vulnerable typically are not well-educated; for the potential destination country, they are not the desired class of migrants for whom there will typically be wide legal channels of migration. Thus, the poor class of migrants find themselves squeezed between their desire and even pressing need to move, and their target country's desire and even need not to receive them. This is the dynamic of illegal immigration — especially when the target country's economic needs tacitly encourage the influx of this class of people, as has happened in the US.
But this is also clearly an unstable situation, and instability always threatens the common good. It is unstable for the class of people who become illegals; they are compelled to live beyond the law; they are neither well protected by the law, nor are they well policed by the law. In the most extreme cases, they must hide from the law, but much more typically and perhaps even much more problematically, their daily activities subvert the law: Merely by their presence they are signs of lawlessness. The situation is unstable as well for the host country and its citizens, many who employ illegal immigrants, or whose children interact with the immigrants' children. In other words again, the daily activities of citizens and illegals destabilize the law. Such instability cannot and should not persist.
Catholic documents on immigration recognize this instability by stating that immigration always has a high cost, especially borne by the migrant but borne by the host country as well, and by affirming the right of the country to preserve its culture. Being an illegal immigrant is never easy, even in the United States; it is always a perilous condition for the immigrant and his family. But the immigrant has decided the rewards outweigh the perils: His chosen country offers him something so worthwhile he will subject himself and his family to those perils. The US continues to draw millions of people despite these perils; it has the right and a duty to protect those goods enjoyed by its citizens and attractive to others.
President Bush is correct: divisive rhetoric serves no one. Most Americans are neither apologists for lax immigration and cheap labor nor nativists looking to bust brown skulls and keep America pure. Instead, some of the issues above, and many other issues, complicate the question beyond simple slogans, and too often our politicians seem unwilling to or incapable of sifting through them.
Catholic teaching has long dwelt upon the notion of the Christian as a migrant, and the Church itself as a migrant community who has on earth no permanent home. Additionally, through scriptural interpretation the Church has focused on the plight of the traveler, of the vulnerable outsider, who comes looking for aid and who offers no apparent material reward. Jesus draws on the depth of Jewish experience of exile and migration when, in Matthew's Gospel he states, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). There can be no question that Jesus here and elsewhere endorses welcoming the stranger into our company.
But that solves nothing, of course. Good people are vexed by immigration because they know that while they are to welcome the stranger, even the one whose presence violates the law of their land, their welcome is no policy, and by their nature states require policy. Immigration policy requires, on the one side, the space to let good people welcome and serve the vulnerable in their midst, and on the other side, the rigor both to reduce the frequency and depth of vulnerability, and to equip the host with the resources adequately to assist the migrant. While we are right to remind ourselves we are a nation of immigrants, we must equally emphasize “nation” as well. Every year the US draws millions of immigrants into a condition of vulnerability. The US has the responsibility both to welcome those people but also to preserve and esteem the good they've chosen.
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.