Father Brian Jordan works with New York-based Voices for Immigrant Justice.
After serving among immigrants and refugees for over 15 years as a Franciscan priest, it has occurred to me that migration must not be looked at in isolation but within the political and economic context of a world divided between a minority of wealthy, powerful nations and the majority of poorer nations. Since the majority of the undocumented immigrants are Roman Catholic and a substantial number of legal immigrants are Roman Catholic, the Catholic Church has played a pivotal role as an advocate for the rights of immigrants and refugees.
The Roman Catholic Church respects the immigration laws of the United States, although it does not always agree with some of them. Contrary to popular perception, the Catholic Church does not encourage open borders nor promote undocumented immigration. In fact, there is a Vatican document that states that those who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position (Pontifical Council, 1992). The Catholic Church is ruled by divine law and abides by the Biblical mandate in Exodus 3:1-20 in which God is revealed as liberator. God sends Moses to free the people from religious, economic, and political oppression.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States began as an immigrant church during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, the Church experienced periods of exclusionary reactions to its members characterized by nativism, ethnic and religious chauvinism, and racism. This occurred despite the fact that such reactions contradicted this nation’s commitment to freedom, justice, and equality that are fundamental to the American political community. As a result, the Catholic Church has sustained its immigrant legacy by continuing to reach out to the newly arrived in this current age. Presently, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest single denomination in the United States, with more than 60 million members. Its governing body is the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, its policy arm is the United States Catholic Conference, and its social service agency is led by Catholic Charities. Their headquarters are located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.
Catholic Social Teaching
The teaching of the Catholic Church on immigration is found mainly in her documents on social issues. The first principle of Catholic social teaching is the affirmation of the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God, capable of knowing and loving the Creator, and entrusted with the stewardship of the earth. The local church is called to welcome immigrants and greet them with warm hospitality. Although, the Church prefers to emphasize the right to work for all who are able to do so.
Various church documents in the last one hundred years support the rights of families to emigrate in order to fulfill one’s duties for the physical, spiritual, and religious welfare of the family. The government, for its part, has the duty to accept such immigrants and help further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society (Blume, 1995). The right to emigrate includes the right to be with one’s family. The Catholic Church fully supports family reunification since family members are vulnerable to the negative aspects of emigration. Everything connected with the human person takes priority over production and profit.
Speaking for myself and not for the U.S. Catholic Conference, I fully support family-based preferences as primary consideration for legal immigration to the United States. My argument is based on the fact that the family is the basic unit of society. Sound families produce healthy societies. I am not advocating the exclusion of other categories for legal immigration, but families need to be reunified and fortified with a productive, socioeconomic environment. Realizing the controversy surrounding annual legal immigration numbers, I would permit an annual quota of 750,000 legal immigrants each year. Of that number, I would allocate 500,000 entries based on the three levels of family-based preferences. One hundred thousand visas would be set aside for work-related entries such as high technology workers. Another 100,000 visas for refugees and asylees. Fifty thousand visas for diversity entries, especially for those countries that do not have a substantial representation in the United States. I would also add a stipulation to allow a greater number of refugees and asylees into the United States if they demonstrate well-founded fear of persecution or torture.
Faced with the growing number of migrants and refugees, the nations of the world must address the root causes of why so many people leave their homelands. The Roman Catholic Church offers a long-term and a short-term solution. First, the Church supports the genuine, socioeconomic development of all nations as a long-term solution. Pope John Paul II writes from one of his recent encyclicals, "It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies which leave so many countries on the margin of development and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development." (Centesimus Annus, 1993.) The Catholic Church strongly believes that if there is marked improvement in the just distribution of wealth in the world, the chances are more than likely that people from developing nations would want to stay in their homeland rather than depart for an industrialized nation like the United States.
Second, a short-term solution is for the Catholic Church to show hospitality to the newcomers whether they are documented or not. Again, the Catholic Church does not encourage undocumented immigration but responds with the Biblical mandate to welcome and comfort the stranger in our midst. Catholic Charities and other church-related social service agencies are virtually overwhelmed and do not have the sufficient resources to meet the needs of all who come to their doors regardless of their race, color, or creed. The Catholic Church realizes that Federal authorities cannot guard every step of the borders, watch every ship, or carefully examine every single airport. The real solution, again, is having a marked improvement in a just distribution of wealth throughout the world. Developing nations who make these improvements will more than likely keep their members from leaving their homelands for industrialized nations like the United States.
Immigration Policy and Immigrant Policy
Immigrant policy refers to policies aimed at facilitating the social and economic integration of immigrants. (Fix and Passel, 1994.) Immigrant policy is distinguished from immigration policy, which is concerned with regulating who enters the United States and in what numbers. The Catholic Church does not regulate U.S. immigration policy. However, the Catholic Church does promote a sound immigrant policy in light of changing demographic trends. By the year 2040, one in four Americans will be an immigrant (first generation) or the child of immigrants (second generation), and by 2010, children of immigrants will account for 22 percent of the school age population. (Fix and Passel, 1994.)
Unlike immigration policy, immigrant policy has not been a priority in the United States. Even though there has been a substantial increase in the number of legal immigrants in the last 20 years, there has been a sharp decrease in social service assistance programs for that same population. For example, the recent Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996 attempts to discourage new immigration by denying a range of social welfare benefits to all foreign-born non-citizens currently residing in the United States. Although there have been recent amendments to lessen the impact of this harsh law, legal immigrants are still suffering the consequences of a genuine lack of a sound immigrant policy.
I argue for a national immigrant policy on the grounds that previous U.S. welfare polices toward immigrants have been inconsistent and which resulted in the fragmentation of services. As a result, this erratic system of assistance involves a combination of services targeted specifically for immigrants but limits access to mainstream social services. For too long, state and local communities have been forced to take a large role in providing health, education, and social services to immigrants.
What troubles me is that many social services are provided through voluntary agencies rather than public agencies, either through contractual agreements with government entities or through private and religious donations. (LeDoux and Stephen, 1992.) As mentioned earlier, Catholic Charities and other church-related social service agencies are already overextended due to the fact that the federal government has been dumping off its responsibility to religious organizations as one way to balance the Federal budget. It is now time for the government to accept its responsibility and work with religious organizations to form a viable national immigrant policy.
For example, over more than 100 years, the Catholic school system has saved billions upon billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money by educating Catholic and non-Catholic schoolchildren alike. The Federal government never permitted tax tuition credits for parents who paid both tuition to parochial schools and taxes to the government for public schools they never used. By way of analogy, church-related social service agencies have been saving the Federal government lots of work and money through their services. Rather than asking for financial compensation, these same agencies would prefer a sound immigrant policy in which they would gladly cooperate with the Federal government to assist immigrants and refugees.
Ideally, I would propose that the Federal government heavily subsidize the six states that have the clear majority of immigrants for a three-year period. Recent statistics indicate that more than 75 percent of immigrants reside in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. After a series of reports and careful analysis, determine if this subsidy program served as a success or failure. After an extensive period of evaluation, then decide whether to renew this subsidy program or not. Similar experimental programs can be set in other states that have a substantial amount of immigrants and refugees. The point is not to have a national subsidy program but to provide subsidies for key states that need it. Other training programs or other forms of assistance can be given to other states that require help with immigrants.
The 1986 U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, Principles of Economic Justice, was a prophetic message to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. The bishops contend that every person has a right to work and has a right to participate in the economic life of society. While admitting that the United States alone cannot solve the problems of the Third and Fourth Worlds, the bishops believe that the U.S. does have special responsibilities. Among them:
First, to call upon other industrialized nations to assist in the economic development of other nations. Second, to promote an equality of trade for both the buying and selling nations. Third, find creative ways to pay the debt of poor nations. Lastly, to address seriously the food shortage crisis that many nations are facing. If these four objectives were somehow met, I guarantee that the U.S. would not be in the midst of its present immigration controversies.
Although the Catholic Church does not dictate the immigration policy of any country, including the United States, it does advocate a sound immigrant policy that effectively deals with immigrants while they reside in this great nation. Catholic social teaching abides by the divine mandate to assist those in dire need, whether they be a long-standing U.S. citizen or those who recently arrived on our shores.
Blume, Michael A. Catholic Church Teachings and Documents Regarding Immigration: Theological Reflection on Immigration. May 15, 1995. Paper presented in Rome, Italy.
Fix, Michael and Passel, Jeffrey S. (1994) Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.
Henriot, Peter J. (ed.) (1990) Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret. New York: Orbis Books.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996.
John Paul II. (1991) On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum: Centesimus Annus. An Encyclical Letter. Washington, D.C.: The United States Catholic Conference.
LeDoux, C. and Stephen, K.S. (1992) Refugee and Immigrant Social Service Delivery: Critical Management Issues. In A.S. Ryan (ed.), Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees (pp. 31-45). New York: Haworth.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1986) Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. Washington, D.C.: The United States Catholic Conference.
Padilla, Yolanda C. (1997) Immigrant Policy: Issues for Social Work Practice. Social Work, vol. 42, no. 6. pp. 595-605.
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Travelers. (1992) "Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity." Origins 22, 305, 307-313.