Q: I have a question about immigration. What does the church teach about the rights of immigrants and refugees, and about the rights and responsibilities of the nations they are immigrating to?
A: The other day I was teaching eighth-grade religion and the topic of the day was immigration. We were learning about what the church teaches on this topic and how it is essentially a pro-life issue for us. I began the class by asking the students some questions: “How many of you were born in another country?” Three raised their hands (I did as well, being born in Canada). “How many of you have parents born in another country?” Most raised their hands. “How many of you have parents born here in the U.S.?” Only two of the students raised their hands.
That experience reminded me about something important and universal about the Catholic experience here in the U.S.: We are and always have been a church of immigrants. In years past it was the Italians, Germans, Irish and others who filled our pews. Today, in addition to the descendants of those immigrants, there are new faces, Hispanics, Africans and Asians, who enrich us as a church with their distinct cultures and rich faith traditions. From day one, the plight of the immigrant, the refugee and the migrant worker, Catholic or not, has been an important focus of the church’s life and social teaching.
Respecting the dignity of immigrants and refugees is important to the church because our faith and tradition are rooted in their experience. In both the Old and New Testaments, we encounter powerful stories about the plight of immigrants and refugees fleeing oppression and violence. One of the central narratives of the Old Testament is the exodus from slavery to freedom of the Jewish people, who lived for 40 years as refugees in the desert.
In the New Testament, we encounter another powerful story of other immigrant refugees, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who fled to Egypt to escape the danger posed by King Herod. The church has a special place in her heart for immigrants and refugees because their experience is essentially ours.
We are also reminded of Jesus’ powerful teaching about seeing and serving him in those in need: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) This passage guides church teaching about the rights of immigrants and refugees. In many cases, immigrants and refugees are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our midst, which is why the church teaches that governments at all levels must do all they can to ensure that their dignity and wellbeing are respected and upheld.
The church’s social teaching says that there are three principles that must be applied when a society or government develops immigration policies.
The first is that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. When an individual or family is unable to maintain a meaningful life in their own country, they have the right to seek one elsewhere.
Second, a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration in order to preserve the common good and protection of its citizens. No country is bound to accept all people who wish to immigrate there, especially if the safety and common good of its citizens are in jeopardy.
Finally, a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. That is to say, the second principle must be enacted with the absolute equality and dignity of all people in mind. Accepting immigrants and refugees is not optional but is essential to the life of any just nation, a responsibility to be exercised with prudence and wisdom.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
Read the statement on immigration and refugees by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo at www.seattlearchdiocese.org/statements.
Northwest Catholic - April 2017