It seems like Catholics are all over the map when it comes to their views on immigration reform. Attitudes and laws regarding the undocumented can vary considerably by state but the Church takes a pretty clear position. Personal experience with immigration also affects how we look at it.
I know how it feels to be an immigrant because I spent almost two years as an undocumented worker in a European country. I wasn’t compelled to leave my own country for economic or political reasons, as are many who come to the U.S., but I have in common with them the fact that I was seeking something I couldn’t find at home.
Like many who come to America, I didn’t have too much trouble finding work – in a job that most of its citizens weren’t qualified to do. I was paid pretty well though not as well as I would have been if I’d had papers. Not all migrants in the United States are so fortunate; some have to deal with very low wages and substandard living and working conditions.
The Church’s view
Personal anecdotes and media spin aside, what does our universal Church say about a global phenomenon that’s garnered so much national attention lately?
Are undocumented workers wrong to come to countries that restrict their participation in the official economy and civic affairs?
According to the Catechism, governments have two responsibilities in regard to immigration: to welcome the foreigner and to secure their borders. It doesn’t say much about how to integrate those responsibilities, however, which might be one reason for the divergence in public opinion.
In his 1996 Message for World Migration Day, Bl. Pope John Paul II affirmed undocumented migrants’ right both to emigrate and to immigrate:
The Church acts in continuity with Christ’s mission. In particular, she asks herself how to meet the needs, while respecting the law of those persons who are not allowed to remain in a national territory. She also asks what the right to emigrate is worth without the corresponding right to immigrate.
How to treat immigrants
The Catechism also gives guidance on how we should treat immigrants, especially those who come to escape poverty or suffering in their own country:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his own country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. (CCC2241)
That doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t restrict immigration. It also doesn’t exempt those coming to a country from obeying its laws, the Catechism continues:
“Public authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” (CCC2241)
The U.S. Bishops and immigration reform
The U.S. bishops have had quite a bit to say about immigration reform. In a 2011 statement they supported earned legalization with a path to citizenship, a future worker program, family based immigration reform, restoration of due process rights, addressing the root causes of migration and the legitimate role of the government in enforcing security.
For the undocumented who are already working here, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church stresses that immigration must be regulated according to “criteria of equity and balance.”
Institutions in host countries must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to exploit foreign laborers, denying them the same rights enjoyed by nationals, rights that are to be guaranteed to all without discrimination.
Along with not exploiting workers, countries should respect and promote the right of family reunification, the Compendium states. But it also emphasizes that they should help foster increased work opportunities in immigrants’ country of origin.
I eventually returned to my native country and so do many immigrants who come to the United States. While immigrants are here though, the Church makes it clear both that they should receive fair treatment and that they should follow our laws.