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Discussions of immigration often oversimplify or distort the moral issues at stake. Contemporary liberalism promotes the twin ideals of individual autonomy and equality. But these ideals, as commonly interpreted, have a corrosive effect on attempts to regulate immigration, since restrictions on immigration both constrain the autonomous choices of those who wish to migrate and also protect the inegalitarian global distribution of wealth. From this perspective, restrictions on immigration appear selfish at best, xenophobic at worst.

This outlook affects even Christian discussions of immigration. Consider, for example, the 2003 Joint Pastoral Letter of the Mexican and U.S. bishops, Strangers No Longer. The bishops propose five principles to guide immigration reform: (1) that persons have the right to find opportunities in their own homeland; (2) that they have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families; (3) that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders (though not in order to preserve economic inequality); (4) that refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection; and (5) that the human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

These principles appear innocuous. But they receive a remarkably unbalanced interpretation in the bishops’ extensive discussion of policy recommendations. These recommendations include foreign aid to address the root causes of migration, facilitation of family- and employment-based immigration, amnesty for undocumented migrants, promotion of due-process rights for migrants, calls for a more humane border-enforcement policy, and ensuring ready access to asylum procedures. The bishops make no attempt, however, to give more than lip service to the right of nations to control their borders. Particularly noteworthy is their lengthy discussion of recent U.S. efforts to control the border with Mexico. That discussion is unremittingly critical, with no apparent concern for how the border might be more effectively controlled. Indeed, perhaps the most favorable comment the bishops have to make about U.S. enforcement policy is this backhanded compliment: “To be sure, the large majority of Border Patrol agents conduct themselves in a professional and respectful manner.”

Contemporary liberalism’s difficulty in justifying restrictions on immigration should give us pause. Its conclusions vary widely from the ordinary assumption of most people (and, traditionally, of international law) that the state is entitled to regulate immigration. Not, of course, that states may do anything they like in this regard. Most people acknowledge obligations toward refugees and asylum seekers, or even a broader obligation to admit at least some of the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But these obligations to outsiders are not commonly thought to cancel out our collective right to protect the national culture or defend the economic interests of existing citizens.

Nor should we regard restrictions on immigration as merely self-interested attempts to escape our moral obligations. To be concerned about working-class Americans who might be displaced by cheaper immigrant labor and to sympathize with those who find their neighborhoods transformed by an influx of immigrants is not rank self-interest. We have obligations to children whose education suffers as teachers struggle with classrooms of students whose command of English varies widely, and to doctors and nurses whose ability to serve their communities is strained by the need to treat poor and uninsured migrants requiring emergency care. We have obligations, as well, to bequeath to future generations both a political order that has nurtured liberty across centuries and the cultural heritage that has sustained it (and—not coincidentally—enabled us to absorb large numbers of immigrants over time).

To recognize these obligations is neither nativist nor selfish. Not that they cancel out our other obligations to more-distant outsiders. Rather, all these various obligations exist side-by-side. But, if we are to navigate the immigration controversy appropriately, we ought to recognize the full range of our responsibilities. Describing the issue in these terms, moreover, reveals it as a variation on a familiar moral difficulty: the tension between universal and particular duties. We are called to recognize the image of God in every human being, and we owe something to each person simply by virtue of his or her humanity. But we also stand in particular relationships to certain persons for whom we bear special responsibilities: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, fellow citizens. These special relationships channel our potentially endless obligations and make them practicable.

The world, after all, contains countless needy people who require assistance. How are we to know whom to help? So we begin with those to whom we stand in special relationships. The neighbor whom we are commanded universally to love takes particular shape as the aged father in need of regular attention, the cousin whose husband is away fighting in Iraq, the fellow parishioner who has lost his job. Immigration regulations are a way of embodying in policy a preferential love for our own fellow citizens and the way of life that we share. Such a preference can be overridden, but it is not inherently suspect.

Understanding the immigration debate in these terms is an advance over the bishops’ ad hoc list of principles in at least three ways. First, it avoids the problematic language of “rights.” It is by no means clear, for instance, that persons have a right to migrate, because if they do, some particular and identifiable other country must be obliged to admit them. This would be not only a radical departure from traditional international practice; it would also contradict the bishops’ third principle, which is that states have a right to control their borders. Discussing immigration policy in terms of clashing rights is likely to make it more rather than less difficult to resolve. Better to ask how we should meet our different obligations to those who make various claims on us for assistance.

Second, the bishops’ principles are often better understood as attempts to describe different aspects of our web of obligations. That persons have a right to opportunities in their own homeland, for example, expresses the primary obligation of fellow citizens to one another. The right to migrate is a second-best corollary of that first principle: When citizens fail to assist one another adequately and development efforts leave some in poverty, wealthier nations have an obligation to assist some of the neediest by granting them entry. The right of nations to control their borders reflects the obligation of citizens to sustain their common polity for their descendants. The duty to protect refugees and asylees reflects our obligations to the most desperate, while the need to protect the human dignity of illegal immigrants is simply an instance of our obligation to respect the dignity of all persons. Interpreting the bishops’ principles in this way transforms them from a random and inconsistent list into an attempt to explicate the moral structure of the immigration issue.

Finally, this approach takes much more seriously than do the bishops our obligations to our fellow Americans. While the bishops acknowledge in theory the right of countries to control their borders, they make no attempt to consider why countries have that right. By explicitly recognizing our obligations not only to needy outsiders but also to our fellow citizens, an understanding of the interplay between universal and particular duties does a far better job of acknowledging and inviting us to consider the full moral complexity of immigration.

In light of this, how might we reform immigration policy? First, we should develop a legalization program for illegal immigrants who have been in this country for at least a certain period of time (perhaps five years). The moral arguments in support of an amnesty are very strong. Those who have lived in this country for an extended period, starting families and putting down roots, at some point can no longer reasonably be regarded as outsiders. De facto, if not de jure, they are one of us. Our obligations to them gradually begin to mirror those we owe fellow citizens, of which the refusal to expel them from the country is basic. Various conditions—such as the payment of back taxes or proficiency in English—should be attached to an amnesty provision, to underline the importance of the rule of law and the need for genuine integration. But to those who are already, whether we like it or not, members of the American people, our obligations are strong enough to prohibit outright deportation.

Second, critics rightly argue that amnesty creates an incentive for future illegal immigration. Border security is therefore both the moral and practical prerequisite for an amnesty, because we should not attempt to satisfy our obligations toward those deserving amnesty at the expense of our fellow citizens. Thus, while rejecting an “enforcement only” approach, we should support the “enforcement first” or “sequencing” proposals that some have suggested. By showing both the will and the ability to secure the border, we can responsibly pursue an amnesty, putting ourselves in a more satisfactory moral position on both scores.

Third, the combination of adequate border control and appropriate amnesty for long-term residents would defuse the issue of illegal immigration and enable us to address what should really be the focus of debate: legal immigration. Illegal immigration, after all, is something of a red herring. The question “How many illegal immigrants should we admit?” answers itself. Just as securing the border is a prerequisite for the moral act of amnesty, resolving the problem of illegal immigration is a prerequisite for addressing the far more fundamental question “How many immigrants can and should America take in?”

This question invites us to weigh carefully our obligations toward both current members and outsiders, duties particular and universal. What do we owe to our fellow citizens, to our children and future generations, to the world’s neediest and most oppressed? How do we carry forward the American achievement of incorporating immigrants while preserving both liberal democracy and the national culture that sustains it? How do we do justice to all our obligations, to both citizens and strangers? That is the ethical dimension of immigration.

Peter C. Meilaender is an associate professor of political science at Houghton College and the author of Toward a Theory of Immigration.