Today, the “Gang of 8” offers a comprehensive immigration reform plan intended to address the contemporary realities of immigration. To prepare for that conversation, I’d like to offer some points of importance for Christians to consider on this issue.
Pope Pius XII said that Americans are stewards of natural resources that could support a large population. He said that when a nation’s resources “offer the possibility of supporting a large number of people,” the nation should seek to fulfill that possibility. “For the Creator of the universe,” he stated, “made all good things primarily for the good of all.”
We have an obligation in America to welcome foreigners in search of security and a just livelihood. The obligation is tempered by an assessment of our own economic condition. If we are unable to welcome more people seeking jobs, we shouldn’t. I’m not a politician, or an economist, or in the legal profession. I am a pastor. But the number of immigrants employed in this country suggests that there is a need, and an ability, to welcome immigrants to America. From the perspective of a pastor, it seems we are able, as a nation, to help those seeking stability.
Yet immigration law is broken in America. Our system is set up for the immigration patterns of the past: for families traveling together, working in a manufacturing economy, and intending to stay permanently. We need comprehensive immigration reform. If we undertake immigration reform in accord with natural law—in accord with truth—there are certain principles we should uphold.
I’d like to reflect on three principles of critical importance in the reform of American immigration policy.
The first is that immigration stems from economic disparity between nations. Few people leave strong economies to work in weak ones. The combined GDP of the top ten migrant-producing countries is less than the GDP of the United States. So if we want to consider immigration justly, we will first consider whether our own economic policy supports economic growth and administrative integrity in other countries. And we’ll encourage other nations to strengthen their domestic economies.
Large experiments in socialism and communism across the globe have led to considerable poverty and have failed. So has the unchecked greed that corrupts capitalism. Global leaders who see people leaving their country in droves should ask themselves what is wrong. When people are fleeing a nation, it’s time to get serious about economic and political reform.
The second principle is that nations have a right to security, which begins with secure borders, and with stemming the tide of illegal immigration. If we need immigrants in the country, or if we can support them, we ought to make entry into the country easier and faster. We should be especially attentive to people coming from situations of extreme duress.
This week, terrorist attacks in Boston reminded us of September 11, 2001—and of the importance of ensuring security for all Americans. Government has the responsibility to ensure that those who have come here are not criminals or terrorists. If amnesty is to be granted to undocumented immigrants already in this country, we have the right and responsibility to look into their backgrounds. And we have the right to expect other countries to assist us in securing our borders.
The third principle I want to discuss is the most important. The moral theologian Johannes Messner wrote in 1958 that “the family is prior to the state. It holds natural rights which the state is bound to recognize.” In fact, Messner says that the “prominent task of the state” is “to make it possible for families to fulfill their natural function.”
Immigration policy that respects the sovereignty of the family makes it possible for husbands and wives, and their children, to obtain visas together easily, even when only the father will work. Respecting the family means finding alternatives to deportation when families will be torn apart by it. And government always has the responsibility to ensure that all workers can earn a just wage, one which allows them to be open to life, and to support the children God gives them.
In Colorado, I’ve endorsed plans to give undocumented children easier access to education, and to allow undocumented adults to obtain drivers’ licenses. These plans are not intended to reward criminal activity. They’re intended to respect the realities of complicated family situations. And to promote family welfare and safety whenever possible.
Today, immigrants are too often viewed solely through a financial lens. They are viewed as workers, and reduced merely to their economic potential. But immigrants are members of families, and those families are essential to our social order. They have something to contribute to our national order, because they are human beings, endowed with real dignity. Immigrant families have always contributed to the richness of our culture—particularly the richness of American Christian culture.
As we face the breakdown of the family in this country, we should recognize that supporting families through immigration law is one route to the restoration of Christian culture in the United States.
As of this writing, I do not know whether the Gang of 8 legislation is rooted in Christian principles. But I do know this: Mary and Joseph were driven from Bethlehem to Egypt by the unjust governance of Herod. Joseph and Mary fled by night with the child Jesus across a vast desert. It was in Egypt that Christ was raised. Like today’s immigrants, they did not stay forever. They stayed as long as they needed to, and then they returned home.
I do not know if Mary and Joseph were welcomed in Egypt. I do not know if they were treated justly. But I do know this: Jesus Christ was an immigrant.
If we find ways to welcome the immigrants around us, to respect their dignity and freedom, to treat them with justice—we will have welcomed Jesus Christ, and the Holy Family. We see in the face of every immigrant, and in the face of every human being, the face of Christ. Whatever we do for the immigrants among us, we will have done for Christ, Our Lord.
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the Archbishop of Denver.