At the dawn of systematic political thought, Aristotle conceived of the state as the natural social institution responsible for security and justice—the family and the village being too small to secure its members from the menaces of the wicked. The state guaranteed, above all, the security of a country, its people, and its territory. But it also defined piety as an important element of the national community and relied on civic religion both to form its people and to appeal to the city’s gods for protection and favor.
But when Christ established his Church, the state suddenly had a competitor that claimed to be a discrete and separate institution with a commission to preach and teach the gospel and dispense its sacraments to all nations. Recognizing no boundaries to its mission, the early Church, while accepting the utility of human citizenship, pointed its flock to a higher loyalty—a heavenly citizenship, as proclaimed in the Letter to Diognetus. The Church could not ignore the state, because it was, par excellence, the institution for law and order necessary for the advancement of the Church’s work. Christians were urged by the Church to obey the leaders of states in all things permitted by God, and to refuse obedience only when commanded to commit sin.
States have consistently resisted the liberty of the Church, and almost everywhere political authorities have worked to regain control over religion. In the late fifth century, Pope St. Gelasius, in his famous Two Swords letter to the Emperor Anastasius, asserted that both the Church and state had their proper spheres of independence. The Church wielded a spiritual sword for the advancement of faith and morals, and the state a temporal sword to secure the good order and safety of society. Despite perennial tension between Church and state, the state benefited from the Church’s fashioning of virtuous citizens, and the Church benefited from pursuing its work in the general climate of security and peace advanced by the state. Debates over the limits of church and state authority continued nonetheless to animate disputes between clerics and kings, as they do down to our own time.
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We should also note that ancient states paid precious little attention to public health, the protection of women and children, or public welfare programs for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. But the Church from its earliest days took a lively interest in the conditions of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the exposed child, the sick, the refugee, the prisoner, the traveler, the ignorant, the dispossessed, and the persecuted, and as a result schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, charities, and monasteries blossomed forth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the state began to usurp control over these kinds of social institutions which the Church had previously initiated and encouraged. Thus, a new zone of conflict opened up in modern times between the institutions of church and state. Elements of that competition are visible in the current controversy over immigration.
The state, unlike the Church, has the sole authority to exercise the use of coercive force for the common good. It does so through its domestic legal codes, its police and penal system, its systems of criminal and civil justice, and through its monopoly over the armed forces and ancillary agencies to protect its territory and people from foreign threats and menaces. Ultimately, the state determines the rules for acquisition of citizenship and for lawful immigration.
Modern international law, harkening back to the Peace of Westphalia, places sovereign authority over the regulation of borders under the jurisdiction of state governments, which have the option to relax or even remove all impediments to the movement of people or products over their borders as a matter of voluntary decision. In short, the state alone is in the position to adjust its laws in all such matters as the domestic and international circumstances require. The Church recognizes the prudential authority of the state in such matters, while its own core obligation is to preserve the faith and morals of its flock. (See the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paras. 424-425)
The Right to a Nationality and Rights of Nations
Sometimes lost in the shuffle or even denied in discussions about immigration is the fundamental right to a nationality (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 15:1) and the right of nations to existence, which are bedrock principles of international law. Christ commanded his Apostles to preach and teach the Gospel to all the nations. His Church, over the course of its two millennia of evangelization, in turn, has recognized the need for enculturation of the Gospel to the nations. Nations appear to be part of God’s plan.
St. John Paul II, addressing the themes of nation, nationality, and patriotism, stated: “It seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities. In this regard, Catholic social doctrine speaks of ‘natural’ societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension.” Contrasting patriotism to nationalism, he noted that the former “is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.” Nationalism, on the other hand, privileges one’s own country and thus can be a disordered and unhealthy form of idolatry.
The Catholic Catechism (2239) emphasizes that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” Regarding immigration, the Catechism (2241) affirms the immigration rights of persons, but also the duty of immigrants 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 right to a nationality presupposes the existence of nations and the right of a nation to exist. Unregulated immigration and large migration flows can represent a challenge to the existence of a nation, its integrity, its security, and even the survival of its national identity. This has become apparent both in Europe and in the United States, and has led quite naturally to emerging concern and political expression of that concern owing to increasing levels of disorder, social disintegration, criminal and terrorist activity, and threats to personal safety and security. When immigrant populations refuse to assimilate into a nation or grant their allegiance to it, disruptions follow soon enough.
Governments have a solemn responsibility to their national populations to regulate immigration and to protect their people from the harms of uncontrolled migration. Immigrants have rights, but only to a certain limit, which the government has an obligation to prudently determine. It is simplistic to describe all popular opposition to immigration as merely xenophobic. Common people can sense what inattentive governmental elites perhaps cannot see—namely the day-to-day difficulties and dangers that arise in communities disrupted by immigrant populations who do not share and who sometimes do not respect “with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them,” and who often do not “obey its laws or assist in carrying civic burdens.” When large numbers of immigrants adopt such attitudes, the receiving country has every right to reconsider immigration policies.
The Catechism acknowledges the rights of both the immigrant and of the receiving state. The immigrant, who cannot find security or a means of livelihood in his homeland, has the right to be received and the country of reception has the right to welcome foreigners “to the extent they are able” (CCC 2241). Respect for immigrants and respect by immigrants are both required. But when either form of respect is missing, economic, political, and moral dilemmas arise.
The Moral Dilemma for the Church
The harmful and morally unacceptable elements of unregulated migration also present a problem for the Church, which on one hand recognizes the prudential and legal right of sovereign states to regulate migration, but which has recently also supported the idea of open borders on humanitarian grounds. But the human rights and humanitarian reality of unregulated migration today is that it constitutes a form of human trafficking—unspeakably brutal and immoral treatment of migrants is well documented. The Church has every right to advance the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and even has a duty to do so on its own or—as is more common today—in collaboration with the state. Indeed, the largest recipient by far of federal funds for refugee resettlement is the Catholic Church and USCCB, which received a total of more than $2 billion from the U.S. government between 2008 and 2015. But there is a darker underbelly to the actual migration process which must not be ignored.
A very high percentage of unaccompanied minors are subject to sexual abuse by the cartels that charge as much as $6,000 for each refugee escorted from Central America through Mexico to the United States. Knowing that their daughters will very likely be repeatedly raped along the way, families provide them with contraception. Tens of thousands of Central American migrants have disappeared, many presumed dead and others by the thousands kidnapped or abducted into the sex-trade. The desire to get to America and the dream of future riches and ongoing family migration obscure the dangers and the moral evils of participating in this migration stream. Upon reaching the border, and having been coached by activists about what to say to gain entry as asylum seekers, immigrants are simply released into the United States with the expectation that they will show up for a scheduled asylum hearing. Most never do.
This deceptive set of processes takes advantage of loopholes in U.S. asylum and immigration law. The Trump Administration’s recent proclamation to close this loophole requires asylum seekers to enter legally through regular ports of entry where their cases for asylum can be adjudicated. This represents a good faith effort by the government to regulate border crossings and eventually to remove incentives for criminal cartels and smugglers and their migrant victims to cross the U.S. border illegally. The Church should welcome this interim step as a humane and sensible response to the current chaos and dangers of unregulated migration. In the long run, congressional action also needs to be taken.
It is time for our Catholic relief agencies to take stock of this entire situation, and to seek and support reforms to an asylum system that reduces the incentive for lying, fraud, sexual abuse, violence, and trafficking of immigrants by cartels and gangs. The chief responsibility of the Church is to seek and save the lost and to sanctify the body of believers—whether in the United States or in Central America. It is time for the Church and its charitable agencies to reevaluate participation in what increasingly reveals itself as a deeply imbedded structure of corruption and violence.
A Way Forward
The way forward to a more rational and humane asylum and immigration system, for the sake of all parties, is to have well-defined and enforced legal paths to economic migration and to asylum. Asylum law should be restricted to those in genuine need of political asylum and who have legitimate and well-founded fears of political (religious, ethnic, or social group) persecution or torture. The asylum path should not become a path for economic migration. Legal paths to immigration on economic grounds should instead be reemphasized.
Moreover, where grinding poverty, poor local justice or police performance, and other security threats exist, the responsibility lies with the governments of such countries to engage in appropriate reforms. No country should allow undocumented persons into its territory for the purpose of shooing them along to another country, as Mexico has routinely done in recent years concerning Central American immigrants. Under normal circumstances and prevailing international practice, genuine asylum seekers should seek asylum in the nearest available country. Incoming President Obrador of Mexico seems to realize this and has promised to undertake reforms, although the existence of nearly fifty sex-trafficking rings in Mexico and the de facto control of large sections of the border areas by competing criminal cartels are likely to frustrate such efforts.
In all lands and nations, the Church can help care for the stranger and the needy in its midst. But the Church in the United States and in Europe must do more to work with the Church in countries of emigration to assist the needs of the Church there. The governments of the sending and receiving states should be engaged in productive collaboration, too. This is a far preferable way to advance the social gospel than tolerating and perpetuating deceptive and brutal forms of human trafficking.
Every person has a right to a nationality and to residence in their native land, which is where the focus of immigration policy should begin. The Church should avoid reflexive condemnation of governments attempting to reform their asylum and immigration policies in ways that restore both order and justice. Indeed, the Church should be urging precisely those kinds of reform that will ensure a safe and legal means for regulated immigration, which is the right of all nations and immigrants alike. In this the Church and state should have common cause. This is the way forward most consistent with the moral and social teaching of the Church and for the common good and dignity of all persons everywhere.
Photo credit: Border barrier between San Diego and Mexico; Donna Burton / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)