Why the Catholic Church's Interest in Immigration?

August 15, 2016


In the past several years, as our country has focused more of its attention on immigrants from Latin America, I have come across, on more than one occasion, the claim that the Catholic Church’s stance on immigrants derives from the Catholic identity of a large portion of these immigrants. This assertion loses some credibility in light of the church’s recent support for immigrants fleeing the violence and oppression in the Middle East, most of whom are not Catholic. Many will remember the witness of Pope Francis who, at the end of his April visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos, brought three Muslim Syrian refugee families back to be housed in Vatican City. Pope Francis also asked each parish and religious house in Europe to take in one refugee family fleeing from the war-torn Middle East.

The church’s stance on immigration is based on the biblical vision of love for strangers. Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures contain stories of refugees fleeing from oppression. Exodus relates the flight of God’s Chosen People, Israel, from oppression in Egypt, and their experience as homeless aliens in their 40-year sojourn in the desert. God subsequently instructs the Israelites, “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the native born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34) The Christian scriptures begin with the account of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with the newborn Jesus due to King Herod’s intention to kill the infant. Jesus reiterates the command to love and care for the stranger in his teaching, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt. 25:35) Saint Paul reminds the early Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Catholic social teaching on immigration, summarized in the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s pastoral statement of 2000, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, contains three basic principles. First, people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. Every person has an equal right to receive what is necessary for life, including food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. It is not God's will that some live in luxury while others have nothing. In Luke's Gospel, the rich man was condemned for living well while the poor man starved at his doorstep (Lk 16:19-31).

Second, a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. People must make economic, political, and social decisions not out of shortsighted self-interest but with regard for the common good. A moral person cannot consider only what is good for his or her own self and family, but must act with the good of all people as his or her guiding principle. While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social or economic life is jeopardized.

Third, a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. A country's regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by mercy, justice and concern for all people. A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others. A sincere commitment to the needs of all must prevail. All Catholic social teaching must be understood in light of the absolute equality of all people and the commitment to the common good.

In 2003, the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter entitled, "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope." In this letter, the bishops state, “When 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… More powerful economic nations…have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows."

The Catholic Church favors a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that will solve the challenges caused by illegal immigration with a compassionate response to immigrants fleeing violence and oppression or seeking to economically provide for their families. In his address to the joint meeting of Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis reminds us, “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”