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Last Word - January 2011

Holy Family: Illegal Immigrants

As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family this year, it is important for us to reflect on the Gospel which recounts the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape King Herod. Since both Herod and the governor of Egypt were accountable to the Roman Empire and its laws, one must assume that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were illegal immigrants. Of course, even if this were not the case, it would be important in the current debate in America about undocumented aliens to sort out what are the Catholic Christian principles that govern the migration of peoples?

The Catholic bishops of the United States have a long history of reflection on this question dating back at least to1976. Blessed John XXIII laid out the basic principles on the issue in his landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris in 1963. Our position has come to be summarized in five principles:

1) Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland. All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.

2) When such opportunities are not available in their own country: Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. The goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations must accommodate this right. The right of sovereignty does not trump the dignity and rights of the human person.

3) However: Sovereign nations do have the right to control their borders. Immigration must be controlled so that it is orderly and fair. But, the Church rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring or protecting its own wealth and privilege. More powerful and wealthy nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a special obligation to accommodate migrants.

4) In addition to migration forced by economic conditions: Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

5) And, finally, and this is the most timely and sensitive issue in America today: The human rights and dignity of undocumented, that is, “illegal”, migrants must always be respected. Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that is to be respected. Illegal or undocumented immigrants are not to be subjected to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.

In view of these basic principles, the Catholic Church in America has concluded that current laws affecting immigration in our country are “morally unacceptable” and in grave need of comprehensive reform.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal