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The Catholic Church and Immigration

In this section, Father Michael Seavey's seven-part series explaining the Catholic Church's teachings on immigration can be found in its entirety. All seven parts are displayed in sequential order below on this page.

Part I---The Catholic Church and Immigration: An Introduction

Our nation is engaged in a controversial debate on significant reform of our immigration laws. The 11 million+ undocumented immigrants living within our nation’s borders are at the center of this controversy. Another controversy focuses on the need for our nation to secure our borders and the appropriate methods for doing so.

The Roman Catholic Church is a key participant in this debate. The Catholic bishops are almost unanimously supportive of legislation before Congress reforming immigration laws. There is perhaps no other piece of legislation garnering such complete support from the bishops. Yet, the Catholic community remains quite divided over this issue. Not surprisingly, both sides of this Catholic divide make the claim for “justice”.

For many Catholics “justice” requires care and concern for all people including those who entered the United States without proper documentation. Most of these immigrants are members of families now divided by geography between their presence in the United Sates and their home country. All families have the same needs and rights for human care and human flourishing. These Catholics would extend the hand of “justice” in the form of honorable work with just compensation, charitable services and complete integration into American society including citizenship.

For many Catholics on the other side of this issue, “justice” requires care and concern first of all for those immigrants who entered our country legally. They are not opposed to immigration per se, but rather the reality of huge numbers of immigrants here “illegally”, a term preferred to “undocumented”. Why should those unwilling to wait for legal entrance have priority over those who have waited or are waiting? For these Catholics, “justice” also concerns the large number of our citizens already struggling with desperate poverty and the burden of millions more on the social safety nets. How much can we truly do for the needy of our own country without adding millions more to our care?

Because “justice” is foundational for Catholics on both sides of this issue, this “divide” becomes a great difficulty and a great opportunity. The difficulty rests with each side unable to see their adversaries as promoting justice. Therefore, each group is locked in and often unwilling to budge. While papal infallibility has been controversial in the Catholic Church, many of us are not reluctant to claim such infallibility for our own political positions!

The great opportunity comes from the possibility of dialogue. If each side can accept and honor the desire for justice of those who disagree, such an opening can yield fruitful understanding, mutual respect and the desire to establish common ground, and learn from each other. In this way, the Catholic community can model healthy public discourse and break through political polarization and demonizing opponents.

Although there is no easy way to bridge this Catholic divide, understanding basic Catholic Teaching in this area can help create common ground. These moral principles from the Church’s teaching were not developed specifically to address the situation in our nation. That is, our Catholic bishops did not develop overnight moral principles to support the immigration reform currently before Congress. Rather, they emerge from the Church’s Tradition meant to help shape society’s moral life in the light of the Gospel. These Teachings then need to be integrated into debates taking place within individual countries.

Presently in our world, almost a quarter billion people are on the move, or have been displaced from their homelands with millions now living in refugee camps. The vast, vast majority are “on the move” from war, civil insurrection, natural disaster, collapse of failed governments, or destitute poverty. “Destitute poverty” is almost exclusively the reason for 11+ million undocumented immigrants in our country. The last several popes (at least since Pope Pius XII 1939-1958) and the Holy See have been responding to these growing crises with significant charitable aid and unrelenting advocacy on their behalf. 

Moral principles from Catholic Tradition are presented in this section. These moral principles need to be learned, discussed, and integrated into the current debate on immigration reform. These moral principles will not yield specific solutions or easy answers to our complicated dilemma. But these moral principles need to shape the debate with a moral foundation and a horizon where all people can live “justly”.

Part II---The Catholic Church and Immigration: The Rights of Families

The Catholic Church’s teachings on immigration do not begin from the starting point of “national sovereignty” or “the rule of civil law”. Rather, the Catholic Church teachings emerge with “the family and natural law” as the focus. Natural law gives families certain rights, needs and responsibilities. In the Catholic Tradition, families have at least two fundamental rights regarding their residency in a community. Families have the right to remain stable in their community, and families have the right to leave or move from their community.  

Fifty years ago, Pope John XXIII named this right in his encyclical Pacem en Terris (Peace on Earth): “Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.”

Quoting his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to this long held teaching, “Even before the right to migrate, there is need to reaffirm the right not to emigrate, that is, to remain in one’s homeland; as Blessed John Paul II stated: ‘It is a basic human right to live in one’s own country. However these rights become effective only if the factors that urge people to emigrate are constantly kept under control’.” In Catholic teaching, these family rights to remain in their own country or immigrate to another country are considered fundamental rights but not absolute rights.  

How does a fundamental right differ from an absolute right? A government can never justifiably abridge an absolute right, no matter what the circumstances are. For example, a government is never justified dictating how many children a couple can or cannot have. A government can never require a family to belong to or practice a certain religion.

A fundamental right recognizes there are circumstances permitting the state’s need and at times responsibility to abridge that right. A government can require a family to move or limit a family’s options to move. This state action must be based on the common good and/or public safety. If government cannot justify these actions, the family retains the fundamental right to make their own decision. The “rule” belongs to the family. The “exception to the rule” goes to the government, but only when adequately justified. Again for example, if a family is living in a house deemed unfit for human habitation, the state can then forbid anyone to reside in that building. The state also has the burden to prove these actions are justifiable.

Families have rights to be stable and secure, to draw from and contribute to the common good, to exercise their religious and political rights, and to have economic benefits providing for basic human needs and opportunities for human flourishing. Families should not be forced to move from a stable community and the public goods necessary for basic human needs and flourishing. At the same time, families cannot be denied opportunities to seek out these needs when they are unavailable in their own community or their own country.

Inability to provide families with basic human goods constitutes the underlying reason for massive migrations of people worldwide today. This is especially so for the immigration reform debate taking place in our country. As papal teaching notes above, the vast majority of all emigrating families would prefer to stay in their own homelands. Living conditions in their own country simply don’t allow for that. So they are on the move to seek the support their families require to live and flourish.

Pope Benedict further reflects on these dire conditions, “Today in fact we can see that many migrations are the result of economic instability, the lack of essential goods, natural disasters, wars and social unrest. Instead of a pilgrimage filled with trust, faith and hope, migration then becomes an ordeal undertaken for the sake of survival, where men and women appear more as victims than as agents responsible for the decision to migrate. As a result, while some migrants attain a satisfactory social status and a dignified level of life through proper integration into their new social setting, many others are living at the margins, frequently exploited and deprived of their fundamental rights, or engaged in forms of behaviour harmful to their host society.”

In 2011, The Catholic Bishops of the United States applied long held papal teaching to our situation today, “Survival has thus become the primary impetus for unauthorized immigration flows into the United States. Today’s unauthorized immigrants are largely low‐skilled workers who come to the United States for work to support their families. Over the past several decades, the demand by U.S. businesses, large and small, for low‐skilled workers has grown exponentially, while the supply of available workers for low‐skilled jobs has diminished.”

Part III---The Catholic Church and Immigration: The Responsibilities & Rights of Government

The Catechism of the Catholic Church charges good government with two essential duties. Both of these duties must work in tandem and neither can be ignored. This is a classic “both/and” and not “either/or” responsibility. Found in paragraph #2241, the first duty is, "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 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."

The second duty relates to the first duty. Recognizing the right of host countries to set legal restrictions on immigration and legal expectations for immigrants, The Catechism states in the same paragraph as above, "Political 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."

Governments have as first priority the obligation to recognize the natural rights of workers to enter in order to support their families back home. The Catholic Catechism also insists that more prosperous countries have a greater responsibility to support this right. Obviously, the United States of America falls in that category.

Governments also have the authority and responsibility to control their borders. Immigrants residing in the host country and the host country’s government have reciprocal duties and responsibilities. The Catechism reminds immigrants that their residency in another country requires them to follow their laws, support their communities and civic life.  They are also obliged to pay taxes no differently than that country’s citizens. They are not to engage in behavior harmful to their host country’s peace and security.

Host governments have the responsibility to protect immigrants from violence, discrimination, and denial of basic rights. This governmental responsibility flows from the dignity of every human person. Every immigrant in our country (whether documented or undocumented) has a right to be treated as a human person endowed with dignity.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is The Catholic Church’s authoritative catechism for our social justice teachings. No other section of Catholic moral teaching has its own separate catechism. The Compendium states, “Institutions in host countries must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to exploit foreign labourers, denying them the same rights enjoyed by nationals, rights that are to be guaranteed to all without discrimination… Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life. In this context, the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.” #298

It might seem from the above that the Catholic Church wishes to have it both ways, or to stand on both sides of this issue. The teaching can seem contradictory and confusing. But the Church’s Magisterium believes otherwise. The Catholic Church believes that Catholics and all people of good will can engage in civil dialogue while responding to difficult and complex situations.

The Catholic Church provides moral principles as building blocks to shape societies founded on justice, compassion, and human dignity. Every nation is obligated to embrace these principles when developing immigration policy. Every nation will have its own particular circumstances unique to its own experience. Nations can still and indeed are obligated to utilize these moral principles and apply them to the particular circumstances of their country. There are no simple solutions or quick fixes. There are opportunities to uphold the rights of workers while controlling one’s borders.

Healthy conversation begins with an open mind committed to learning from all sides of this issue combined with heartfelt listening. And humans are capable of such conversation and discussion all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding!

Part IV---Who are the Undocumented Immigrants Living in the United States?

For this section, I gathered information from several websites and other sources of data. Many of the data sources were neutral while others have a particular point of view on immigration reform, some strongly opposed, others mostly favorable. For the most part, these sites will be speaking for themselves in this column responding to some of the most important questions and misunderstandings regarding the identity of these people.

Who are these Undocumented Immigrants?
Jeffrey Passel is a researcher for the Pew Research Center and has studied extensively the make-up of immigrants in our country (both documented and undocumented).  In an interview with Public Radio International on May 13, 2013, Mr. Passel offered the following statistics. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country. Approximately 40% of these immigrants entered the United States legally with a temporary visa or other legal entrance. However, when their time for residency expired, they simply continued living here. These 4.5 million come from many countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and around the globe.

That means that 60% of that 11 million entered without documentation or illegally and are almost exclusively from Mexico.  The majority are men. They are mostly concentrated in the states of California, Texas, Illinois and New York. But their numbers are now rising in Midwestern, Southern and Western states like Georgia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nevada.

Why did they come to The United States?
Again, Jeffrey Passel in another interview elsewhere, offers the results on his studies. "More than half of the adult men are in families, are married, or have a partner," he says. "And most of them have children here. The women represent about 40 percent of the adults, and almost all of them are not here by themselves… The undocumented families are younger, and therefore more likely to have children. Nonetheless, the data is indicative of people who have come here to raise a family.”

Part V---Undocumented Immigrants: Myths & Realities

 “Do Immigrants Come Here to Receive Welfare and Other Public Benefits?”

According to the American Immigration Council (strongly supportive of immigration reform legislation passed by the US Senate), undocumented or illegal immigrants are not eligible for most federal public benefits including Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps. In fact, even legal immigrants who are here with documents authorizing their residency are not eligible for these benefits for the first five years of their residency! Even though they pay all the taxes every other citizen pays, they are not entitled to the same benefits for the first five years. All people in our country (citizens, documented or undocumented) can receive hot lunch meals for their children in school and emergency hospital care regardless of their ability to pay for it.

Assistance at the state and local levels varies across the nation. Most governments strictly limit or prohibit any public assistance to undocumented workers and their families. Some do provide a few benefits. Most undocumented immigrants work endless hours at multiple low wage jobs to provide often below minimum standard of living. Still, this is an improvement over conditions in their home countries. Churches and other religious bodies do provide assistance with soup kitchens, food pantries and other charitable works of mercy.

Are Immigrants Responsible for High Crime Rates?

Research and other studies indicate that foreign born undocumented immigrants have lower rates of committing crimes then native born citizens. “When we consider all institutionalization (not only prisons but also jails, halfway houses, and the like) and focus on the population that is most likely to be in institutions because of criminal activity (men 18-40), we find that, in California, U.S.-born men have an institutionalization rate that is 10 times higher than that of foreign-born men. And when we compare foreign-born men to U.S.-born men with similar age and education levels, these difference become even greater,” according to research by economists Kristin F. Butcher (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago) and Anne Morrison Piehl (Rutgers University and the National Bureau of Economic Research).

According to the American Immigration Council, “Crime is lowest in the states with the most immigrants: According to a 2008 report from the conservative Americas Majority Foundation, crime rates are lowest in states with the highest immigration growth rates. From 1999 to 2006, the total crime rate declined 13.6% in the 19 highest‐immigration states, compared to a 7.1% decline in the other 32 states. In 2006, the 10 “high influx” states—those with the most dramatic, recent increases in immigration—had the lowest rates of violent crime and total crime.”

On their website, The Heritage Foundation (strongly opposed to immigration reform legislation passed by the US Senate) claims a secure border with Mexico, “would serve as an obstacle to transnational crime and human trafficking, and facilitate the accurate and rapid targeting of national security threats. All of the measures that could help to build this kind of border can be achieved under existing law…”

The Heritage Foundation also points out, “Much of the criminal activity that crosses the border involves the use of networks that smuggle people, weapons, drugs, and money—making it a national security concern. Attacking these networks is key to reducing illicit cross-border trafficking. This requires the integrated cooperation of federal, state, local, and tribal authorities.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also addresses the crime issue in their statement. “The U.S. Catholic Bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States. The Bishops also believe that by increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would‐be terrorists. Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane.”

I would add a personal observation on the drug wars in Mexico. We have all been horrified by the vicious and barbaric violence between the Mexican government and drug syndicates and wars among drug syndicates themselves. It is important to remember that these wars could only be conducted because of the drug addictions of millions in our own country. That is, the money financing these drug wars comes from illegal drug sales in our own country. If we did not buy the drugs, there would be no money to finance the war. It is not so much as “their drug wars” spilling over our border. Rather, it is our billions of dollars in illegal drug purchases that has come back to bite us.

Part VI---Children of Undocumented: Dilemma & Tragedy Scenario #1

At least two different scenarios involve undocumented immigrants and their children. Both of these scenarios place minor children and others of various ages in tragic dilemmas.

Scenario #1: Undocumented Immigrants Enter the United States with their Young Children. 

These children (born in a foreign country) grow up in the United States often having few if any memories of their birth country. English is a primary language and they are already assimilated into American culture. They have attended local schools and now work in their communities. They worship in local churches, synagogues, temples, etc. They contribute to local economies and pay taxes. They are most often upstanding and honorable residents of their communities.

But they are not citizens nor do they have any legal status in our country. They cannot vote or receive most public benefit programs. More importantly, they can be deported back to their home country even if they have not violated any laws since their arrival. This deportation will return them to a country they have no connection with. They will be taken from a community where they are known, valued and that they have contributed to. They will be deported to their “home country” where they are strangers to those living there, and a stranger to their culture and society.

A few years ago, The Obama Administration and Congressional leaders proposed a remedy referred to as The Dream Act.  Wikipedia (online encyclopedia) describes The Dream Act, “This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.”

On their website, The Cato Institute (strongly libertarian and supportive of immigration reform legislation) stated, “They also represent future workers and taxpayers. The definitive 1997 study on immigration… determined that an immigrant with some college education represents a large fiscal gain for government at all levels. Over his or her lifetime, such an immigrant will pay $105,000 more in taxes than he or she consumes in government services…

“In all, a potential 2.1 million kids could eventually be eligible for permanent legal residency under terms of the DREAM Act, representing a potential fiscal windfall to the government of more than $200 billion. Not to mention their potential contributions to our culture and economy.”

In 2010, The US House of Representatives in a lame duck Congressional session approved The Dream Act but the Senate could not overcome a filibuster to bring it to a vote. Since this Congressional defeat, President Obama has instituted a similar program by Executive Order. This is referred to as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  This Executive Order prioritizes the prosecution of those living here illegally. Those with criminal backgrounds or threaten national security receive the highest priority of prosecution and deportation. Those who entered as minors and lived here virtuously and meeting other requirements can apply for a two year deferred status which can be renewed.

The following information come from the website for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several key guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and would then be eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a discretionary determination to defer removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. Deferred action does not provide an individual with lawful status.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoing long standing church teaching offers this,” An earned legalization program would allow foreign nationals of good moral character who are living in the United States to apply to adjust their status to obtain lawful permanent residence. Such a program would create an eventual path to citizenship, requiring applicants to complete and pass background checks, pay a fine, and establish eligibility for resident status to participate in the program. Such a program would help stabilize the workforce, promote family unity, and bring a large population ‘out of the shadows,’ as members of their communities.”

Part VII---Undocumented Immigrants & Their Children Born in the United States

Following the American Civil War (1861-1865) the United States Congress and the several states made a conscious choice to reorient the entire United States Constitution’s foundation through three amendments (13th, 14th and 15th). Previously, the US Constitution was based on a “states’ rights” premise with more limitations on the Federal Government.  The first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights) restricted the Federal Government from interfering in people’s personal rights. But the Bill of Rights did not necessarily restrict state governments from such activity. These three amendments guaranteed these “personal rights” throughout every state with these rights guaranteed and protected by the Federal Government.

Of these three amendments, the 14th Amendment most dramatically reorients the Constitution’s focus and begins with these words, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This one sentence has a significant impact on the current debate over immigration reform in our nation.

Because of this 14th Amendment, all children born in the any state or territory are citizens of the United States and protected by all her laws. This is true even if the parents are not citizens and may be here illegally (undocumented), creating a tragic dilemma for any family with members who are citizens and those who are not. Those who are undocumented (illegally), are subject to prosecution and deportation. But if the parents are deported, what happens to the children born here and therefore United States citizens?

In November 2011, The Applied Research Center ( issued a report entitled Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and Child Welfare System. This report authored by principal investigator Seth Freed Wessler “conservatively estimates that there are at least 5100 children currently living in foster care because their parents have been either detained or deported... In the next five years, at least 15000 more children will face these threats to unification with their detained and deported mothers and fathers.”

Here is an example cited in the ARC Shattered Families report of the tragedy of families divided between citizens and non-citizens: “Josefina’s baby was just 9-months old and Clara’s children were 1 and6 when they were placed in foster homes with strangers. Clara and Josefina, sisters in their early 30s who lived together in a small New Mexico town, had done nothing to harm their children or to elicit the attention of the child welfare department.

“In the late summer of 2010, a team of federal immigration agents arrived at the front door of Clara and Josefina’s trailer home in New Mexico. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had received a false tip that the sisters, who were undocumented immigrants, had drugs in their home. Though they found nothing incriminating in the trailer and the sisters had no criminal record, ICE called Child Protective Services (CPS) to take custody of the children and ICE detained the sisters because of their immigration status.

“For the four months that ICE detained them, Josefina and Clara had no idea where their children were. In December, the sisters were deported, and their children remained in foster care. Josefina was very quiet as she talked by phone from Mexico a year after she was deported: ‘I don’t know where my child is; I have no contact with my baby. I didn’t do anything wrong to have my children taken away from me’.”

Josefina and Clara’s only “crime” was coming to the United States without permission. They came to work hard and provide a better life for their children. By all accounts, they were good mothers. Their ongoing terrifying ordeal should sear the conscience of our nation.

The Catholic Church could not be clearer that family life is sacred and families should remain intact and undivided. Josefina and Clara should be reunited with their children. Immigration reform recently passed in the US Senate with strong bipartisan support would allow that to happen.