Opinion & Features

There is a major hole in the Church’s current argument on immigration

Young immigrants and their supporters rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Los Angeles (Getty Images)

On 7 February, Nancy Pelosi took to the floor of Congress asking Catholics to pray for legislation supporting “Dreamers”: children of illegal immigrants who came to the country as minors. Her piety was, in a word, ostentatious. “Maybe I should bring my rosary blessed by the Pope… His Holiness, Pope Francis, or the one before that, Benedict,” she mused. “I have the honour and privilege of receiving rosaries blessed by several popes in my lifetime.”

The unfailingly pro-choice congresswoman also took a moment to thank the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for their leadership in the immigration debate. “Let me just say how proud I am of the statements made by the [USCCB],” and of “their courage and fighting for immigrants across our country,” Pelosi said.

The US bishops did, in fact, lobby Washington to grant amnesty. “As a nation, we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to Dreamers,” they said in a statement. “These young people have steadfastly worked to improve themselves and our country and attempted in good faith to comply with the law as it stood.”

This is hardly the first time the bishops have come out against border-enforcement laws, and it will not be the last. What’s more, they have a very sympathetic ear in the Vatican. In his address for last month’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis called on Western countries to open their doors even wider to immigrants, and to streamline their resettlement procedures.

He asked that they be “guaranteed personal safety and access to basic services,” and that detaining or imprisoning illegal immigrants are “not suitable solutions” to the problem of unlawful border-crossing. Westerners also have a duty to embrace “intercultural enrichment”, the Pope continued. He quoted John Paul II as saying we cannot expect migrants to “suppress or to forget their own cultural identity”.

All of which is well-taken. But let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine if the host-countries’ social services were so strained, and their taxes were already so high, they couldn’t support any more dependents without becoming less financially secure themselves. Imagine if many of those immigrants organised themselves into gangs, and the police struggled uphold law and order in dozens of major cities. Imagine if the immigrant and native cultures were so dissimilar they could not coexist seamlessly and one or the other had to be “suppressed”. Would we still have an obligation to take them in?

This is a major hole in Catholic social teaching on immigration. There is an implicit assumption that all immigration is a net-positive to the host country. Yet that simply does not bear out in reality.

The problem is that most of these teachings were developed when migration levels were relatively low, and newcomers were happy to assimilate into the general population. They need to be updated – especially in light of the economic, social, and cultural repercussions of the Syrian migrant crisis.

That involves asking some uncomfortable questions, like: Do we have to raise taxes on the already-struggling middle class to pay for these newcomers’ benefits? Do low-skill workers have to accept unemployment as the price for giving opportunities to immigrants? Is the rise in violent crime and sexual assault across Europe the price we must pay to be good Catholics? Are ethnic ghettoes and language barriers inevitable in a truly compassionate society? Is it sinful to desire a society rooted in Christian values and Christian culture?

The answer to all these questions might be, “Yes”. If it is, the Church must say so. If we as Catholics have a duty to accept lower standards of living and to abandon what’s left of our Christian social mores in order to accommodate migrants and refugees, it is her job to tell us so. To pretend that immigration is always and everywhere a boon to the host-nation is simply dishonest.

If they would prefer not to have that difficult conversation, that’s fine too. The Church is generally content with allowing individual governments to pursue “common good” by “morally licit means”. A general duty to be charitable toward migrants and refugees is laudable – as is the injunction against xenophobia and racism. But the bishops and the Pope undermine their authority to speak against grave social evils (like abortion) when they wade into nuanced policy disputes (like the Republicans’ immigration policy).

Of course, they’re entitled to do so. After all, they’re not just prelates – they’re private citizens. But if they choose to involve themselves in politics like private citizens, we should not be surprised if Catholic politicians treat them accordingly: by paying them lip-service when it suits them, and ignoring them completely when it doesn’t.