The Importance of Borders: Fixing the Immigration Crisis in 9 Steps

My piece last week on immigration flowed from my longstanding policy of spreading oil on the waters — then setting them on fire. Dozens of thoughtful responses offered a wide array of views on how to strike a Catholic balance between Church and state, mercy and justice, globalism and patriotism.

But the most important question posed by several posters came down to: Okay, Zmirak, what would you actually do about the immigration problem? So this week I offer a concrete program.

The goals of U.S. immigration policy ought to be several, with the most important coming first:

  • Secure the U.S. border to prevent people-smuggling in an age of international terror, and minimize deaths and injuries at the border — both among would-be immigrants, and our besieged and outgunned Border Patrol.
  • Reduce the influx — legal and illegal — of under-educated and low-skilled immigrants (be they from Mexico, Mars, or County Mayo) to diminish the downward pressure on wages for less-educated or less-skilled American workers — many of whom are Hispanic or black.
  • Prevent U.S. employers from reversing decades of social progress in improving the wages and working conditions of the American working class.
  • Reform laws and policies that unjustly benefit non-citizens at the expense of citizens, or the wealthiest Americans at the expense of our poorest countrymen.
  • Eliminate the most irrational criteria for selecting whom we admit to our country, and instead offer entry to immigrants who meet America’s needs.
  • Abolish programs that — intentionally or not — retard the assimilation into American society of newly arrived immigrants, or perpetuate ethnic ghettos.
  • Expose and overturn America’s unspoken policy of outsourcing child-rearing to families from other countries.
  • Attain a just and charitable outcome for those individuals who have illegally entered, lived, and worked in the U.S. for significant lengths of time — some of whom have children with American citizenship.

If any reader considers that these goals are inherently unjust, or incompatible with binding, Magisterial teaching, they’d better have a darned good argument as to why. They should take full account of the Church’s principle of subsidiarity, summed up here by Pope John Paul II:

Smaller social units — whether nations themselves, communities, ethnic or religious groups, families or individuals — must not be namelessly absorbed into a greater conglomeration, thus losing their identity and having their prerogatives usurped. (Sixth Session, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Feb. 23, 2000)

That’s an excellent description of what happens to local communities when the Federal government neglects its duty to patrol international borders. As a result, overtaxed towns — from their hospital emergency wards to their public schools — bear the brunt of social problems in other countries, radically changing the American towns’ cultural make-up and flooding historic communities with newcomers whose customs, language, and civic heritage displace what had come before. Pope John Paul knew whereof he spoke — remembering the centuries when German princes flooded Polish lands with settlers, as a prelude to claiming those lands.

With this in mind, my critics should show why a democratic government should not first pursue the Common Good within its own jurisdiction — while showing charity toward foreign residents through generous trade agreements, carefully targeted foreign aid, and voluntary “fair trade” programs through which consumers use their purchasing power to foster economic development abroad. These critics should take full account of the classical Catholic teaching formulated by Aquinas that beyond the stark demands of justice we owe the most to our families, then to our nearest neighbors, then to our countrymen — and least of all (though still a significant amount) to strangers who are represented by foreign governments.

If people wish to deny this principle, and suggest that (for instance) parents are obliged to deny their own children anything beyond the bare necessities of life and Christian education, for the sake of supporting (for example) foreign missions… well, I doubt they will find many adherents. Or for that matter, anyone willing to marry them and raise offspring in such conditions. So I guess that intellectual mutation is counter-adaptive, and I needn’t worry about it too much.


Granting that the goals I laid out are not un-Christian, racist, eugenicist, or any of the other pejoratives that so readily fly from the lips of open-borders advocates, one might argue about their prudence. For evidence in their favor, click on the handy links I included in each of my points for supporting studies or testimonies — and decide for yourself.

For this week, my task is to lay out practical steps for attaining these goals, consistent with the intrinsic dignity of all the people involved. (I know that at this point I should say “human persons,” as a hat-tip to personalism, but it sounds so goofy that I think it uncharitable to readers.)

Here they are:

  1. To secure the U.S. border, we must complete a reliable border fence dividing the U.S. from Mexico — the source of most illegal immigration. This fence should not rely on natural “advantages” such as “impassable” deserts and other hazards likely to claim the lives of desperate migrants. Indeed, in such areas the fence should be doubly secure, since the stakes are especially high — not just U.S. law, but human lives. We must also track the comings and goings of those who enter on U.S. visas, and overstay them — such as most of the 9/11 hijackers.
  2. Reduce the influx — legal and illegal — of under-educated and low-skilled immigrants. This can and should be done by altering U.S. immigration law to focus not on the vastly abused principle of “family reunification” (as extended to include adult siblings and grown-up offspring) but the demonstrated labor needs of the U.S. economy. And there’s an easy way to tell what kind of workers our country is short of — the wages they can command. If the wages and benefits of unskilled workers and high-school dropouts were soaring, that would indicate a labor shortage and might (all things being equal) justify importing more such workers from abroad. In fact, the wages of the U.S. working class, adjusted for inflation, have been flat for some 30 years.
  3. To prevent U.S. employers from reversing decades of social progress by bidding down the wages and conditions of resident workers, cut the immigration totals for unskilled workers to fewer than 100,000 per year — making space in the economy for young, urban residents to find jobs, form families, and escape the underclass.
  4. Reform laws and policies that unjustly benefit non-citizens. While millions of working Americans cannot afford health insurance or attain quality education for their children, it is simply unjust to allow illegal residents to obtain non-emergency medical care at taxpayer expense, or demand cost-prohibitive bilingual and multicultural programs. For instance, the practice of importing teachers from Mexico into the U.S. to teach immigrant students history using Mexican textbooks — as happens in California, Oregon, and Utah. It is also immoral to offer immigrants affirmative action preferences over citizens. As the law stands now, any non-white illegal immigrant who was legalized by an amnesty would benefit from positive discrimination against a U.S. Army veteran who happened to be white.
  5. Eliminate the most irrational criteria for admitting immigrants, such as Ted Kennedy’s “visa lottery,” which awards the citizenship whose value our soldiers fight to protect in a global bingo game. (See, he’s really a Catholic after all!)
  6. Reform “birthright” citizenship — through which a pregnant woman who swims the Rio Grande and gives birth is now the proud mother of a U.S. citizen. This encourages either family break-up or the mockery of our laws.
  7. Abolish programs that retard assimilation. This includes ineffective bi-lingual education, but extends through the whole range of “diversity” programs that reward new Americans for continuing to hyphenate their loyalties.
  8. Overturn America’s unspoken policy of outsourcing child-rearing. Whenever an open-borders advocate tells you that Americans aren’t having enough children to [fund Social Security… grow our economy… maintain global dominance, whatever], think about what that really means. He admits that our current culture, tax, and social policies are anti-family — to the point where Americans are barely reproducing themselves. Instead of reforming these policies to bolster American families, it’s easier simply to outsource child-rearing to other countries.
  9. Attain a just and charitable outcome for those individuals who have illegally entered, lived, and worked in the U.S. This probably will never entail mass deportation — but rather a crackdown on employers who exploit illegal workers. As one of the respondents to my last piece wisely suggested, we might well look to Law & Order for an answer: Immigrants who report on the companies that illegally employ them could be spared deportation, and granted a fast-track to legal status. The only group of illegals which must be swiftly removed are those who commit other crimes.As for the remaining millions, as rational human beings they will respond to real-world incentives. When we squeeze out opportunities for them to work on the black market — without legal protection, safety inspections, health insurance or workman’s comp — through workplace enforcement of labor laws, many of them will return to their native lands where they can actually work. If our Congress could face down the cheap labor lobby, it would mandate the universal use of E-Verify, a currently voluntary government system for checking the legal status of job applicants.

None of these policies are dehumanizing, cruel, or in any way contrary to Catholic teaching. Indeed, they are the bare minimum required to maintain our national security, the respect for just and legitimate law, and the well-being of our own working poor.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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