This autumn we can expect much debate about immigration. This issue particularly affects Catholics. So many of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants and our religion has very specific things to say about our duties to the stranger in our midst.
I have been an immigrant in two countries and have travelled widely. I know from direct experience the profound truth of Pope Francis’s statement on Wednesday:
Consider the presence of so many brothers and sisters who are migrants to be an opportunity of human growth, of meeting and dialogue among cultures and religions, and also even an occasion to witness to the Gospel of Charity
However, I also know that being an immigrant can be difficult. One of the most difficult parts of it is being treated as an outsider, as one who does not fit into established categories and prejudices. People do not always try to find out about an outsider. They simply judge, categorise and exclude. This can cause such unnecessary suffering. I think that there is a reason that Christ was so harsh: “Go away from me… for… I was a stranger and you never made me welcome…”
None of this leads to a clear conclusion as to what is the correct public policy, but it does demand that the discussion about what the government should do be honest, just, balanced and fully informed.
In so far as the argument is about access to public services or the strain on our infrastructure it should take into account the full picture. Some of our public services rely on immigration for their staff. Immigration contributes large sums of money to the exchequer by both direct and indirect taxation. Immigration is also a consequence of and a further driver of our economic success. The argument has to be considered in the round. A detriment from one point of view might well be far outweighed by other benefits.
In so far as the debate is cultural we need to be extremely careful. Everyone must have had the experience of judging another person and then finding when they actually sat down to talk to them that they were completely different. The risk of misjudgements is much greater where the other person comes from a different culture. It seems to me that if the debate is about cultural difference it is essential that we first get to know the “other” communities a bit.
In so far as the debate is about jobs we need to take into account the fears and experiences of those whose jobs are threatened. We need to consider whether the problem is actually caused by immigration rather than other factors; then, whether it is caused by immigration or by something else, tailor the policy so that it addresses the real problem in an effective way. Overall, most economists do not accept that immigration is detrimental to a nation’s economy, often the reverse. However, it can have real effects on some people and these have to be addressed.
Finally, it is extremely important not to allow those with other agendas to use immigration as a tool to manipulate public opinion. It would appear that this issue is particularly susceptible to this kind of use. This is a particularly abhorrent thing to do. Immigrants are people with the same rights to dignity and fair treatment as everybody else. Remembering this will be very important in the months ahead.