What Does the Church Teach about Immigration?

The issue of immigration reform is often personal. Immigrants’ tough choices and early struggles in an America full of opportunity are often part of our family history. Each story is a thread in the fabric of a nation that has been generous and welcoming to hardworking people from all across the world.

The issue of immigration is also political. Concerns and frustrations swirl about border security and the entry of many men, women and children illegally into the United States. Many may ask why our government has not enforced our laws. Many may question whether the government is competent at dealing with such a complicated matter through a comprehensive bill rather than undertaking change piecemeal. It is not unreasonable to be frustrated that our civil officials seem incapable of working with one another to find a compromise political solution to the issue of immigration.

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Pope Francis at Lampedusa, an Italian island that has also been a landing point for refugees from the Middle East. CNS/Paul Haring

But more than personal and political challenges, the issue of immigration is, first and foremost, moral, and this is why it’s critical for Catholics to understand what and why the Church teaches on this topic.

Jesus was clear about our obligations toward our neighbor. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the Lord makes clear to the scholar of the law with whom he’s speaking that loving our neighbor even means caring for our enemy (see Lk 10:29-37). Jesus also speaks of a rich man who finds himself in Hades for failing to care for the poor man at his door (Lk 16:19-31). Moreover, Jesus tells us that when we fail to help “the least of these” we fail to care for Him (Mt 25:31-46). As Christians we must allow Jesus’ teaching to form our consciences.

With this foundation, the Church is not only able but is obligated to provide a much needed voice in the national conversation about immigration. Like every moral question, we have rights that must be protected as well as duties that must be observed. Founded on the natural law and enlightened by faith, the Church’s position on immigration recognizes certain rights and obligations. These include the right to defend the right to life for individuals, the right to work, the right to private property and the rights of families, but also include the right of governments to secure borders, as conflicting and complicated as that may sound.

Competing Rights and Obligations

The Church teaches that a society has the right and obligation to manage itself — and borders are an outgrowth of that. Law means little if there are no borders within which laws can be enforced. Local culture has little value if there is no sense of self in the local community. The maintenance of borders is an extension of the state’s obligation to the common good, and therefore borders are important.

The Church teaches that immigrants have a moral obligation to respect the “material and spiritual heritage” of the welcoming nation and to obey its laws. This does not mean that immigrants may not bring their own distinctive cultural life with them as previous waves of immigrants have done throughout American history. But, rather, it means that immigrants may not impose their own culture or religious laws on a nation in such a way as to undermine that nation’s principles.

If nations have a right to border security and economic stability, and people have a right to life, work and family that transcends borders, how do we adjudicate these opposing rights and obligations? This problem is solved, in part, by recognizing that the right to life is the fundamental right above all others. Pope St. John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation that focused on the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and the modern world, wrote that without the right to life, all other rights are “false and illusory” (Christifidelis Laici, No. 38). In fact, the right to a border and the right to private property lose meaning without defending the right to life.

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Refugees of a Different Era: The Holy Family on the flight into Egypt, depicted in a 2013 U.S. stamp

Work and fair wages to provide for things such as food and water are an extension of that basic right. Pope Leo XIII, the founder of modern Catholic social teaching, taught in his 1891 encyclical on capital and labor that since “without the result of labor a man cannot live” it is necessary that every man receive a just wage. Protecting life is the obligation of every man, he added. Therefore, it “necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work” (Rerum Novarum, No. 44)

Most immigrants today come from developing nations that often have high unemployment, little or no basic health care and spotty access to potable water or nutritious food. Many immigrants come not to break our laws or because they want to leave their homeland and families. Rather, most immigrate to follow their God-given right to work, to food and to life. People have a right to search for those things if they cannot be found where they live.

Right to Life

The Church expects us to protect the right to life of those who cannot find work, food or safety where they live. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “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” (No. 2241, emphasis added). While nations are not obliged to have open borders, Christians are obliged to welcome those whose life is in danger due to conditions such as violence or extreme poverty. To be pro-life means promoting consistent protection of those whose lives are in danger. Therefore, Christians must advocate that life should be the standard for immigration reform.

Because the family plays an important role in Catholic social teaching, the rights of the family must be taken into consideration when looking at how Catholics should view immigration. The Church teaches that family and marriage are fundamental to society and predate governments. The needs of the family precede the desires of the state.

Human dignity must be under consideration in any implementation of new, or enforcement of existing, laws. Rules must be “aimed at protecting and promoting the human person,” Pope Francis said in his message for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees in 2014.

And for the sake of a future America, which can benefit from the witness of migrants with strong family values and work ethic, the Church advocates for a reform that reflects our faith and the Lord’s call to care for our neighbor and their God-given rights.

Omar F.A. Gutierrez lives in Omaha, Nebraska, and works for the Archdiocese of Omaha. His background in theology focuses on the Church’s social teaching. He blogs at omargutierrez.com.

The U.S. Bishops' Guidelines of Immigration Reform
The U.S. bishops provide fundamental elements for just immigration reform in “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” published in 2003.