The United States is a country of immigrants.  With the exception of Native American Indians all U.S. citizens are descended from immigrants. The history of God’s people told in the Old Testament is also a story of a migrant people.  For instance, in Genesis chapters 42-46, Jacob moved his family to Israel during a time of famine.  Then, when the Egyptians came to oppress the Israelites, God sent Moses to lead his people from oppression to freedom (The Book ofExodus).  In Leviticus 19:33-34 God reminds his people in the desert, "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong, the stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you; for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt (cf.Deuteronomy 10:17-19)."

Likewise, as a little child Jesus had to migrate with his parents, Mary and Joseph, for fear of their lives (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).  In today's world, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would be defined as official refugees.

"A refugee is a person outside of the United States who seeks protection on the grounds that he or she fears persecution in his or her homeland. .  A person who has already entered the United Sates, and who fears persecution if sent back to his or her country, may apply for asylum here" (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Immigration Basics”, http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/immigration-basics.html, Access date January 29, 2010).

Then, in Matthew 25:35, Jesus teaches us the Corporal Works of Mercy, which includes, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me drink a stranger and you welcomed me.”

We are called to be in solidarity with all of God’s people, caring for people in need of food, drink, clothing, shelter, the sick, and the imprisoned wherever they maybe. 

One would think being a nation of immigrants, knowing our Israelite history, and the teachings of Jesus we would be very welcoming to new immigrants.  However, talk about immigration reform in the United States and you are likely to have a wide variety of opinions ranging from no letting anyone move to our country to giving everyone in the country citizenship and letting anyone in.

These are two extremes and I find that justice is best served by avoiding the extremes and balancing all the concerns.

What are the concerns of immigration reform expressed by American citizens?  Some fear that the immigrants will take all their work away.  Some fear that with the bad economy that some will immigrant here, not find jobs, and add to the unemployment problem. Some think that crime rates go up in communities with large numbers of immigrants.  Others feel that the immigrants receive a lot of public assistance, medical care, and Social Security without paying any taxes.  There are those who seek to make sure terrorists are not coming into the United States. 

Are these concerns real?  Of course, they are.  For instance, the concern of jobs is very real.  With the national unemployment rate at 10% (January 2010), it would only seem reasonable to think that more immigrants would only add to the unemployment rate.  To go a step further, it would seem apparent if we would deport all the illegal immigrants the unemployment rate would go down with American Citizens filling the jobs once held by the illegal immigrants.  It seems so obvious.  Yet, the reality is that many of the jobs done by migrant workers go unfilled when they cannot come.  According to Lawrence Downes, in his editorial “The Spots of the Stems”,

New York’s apple harvest needs 8,000 workers 8,000 workers for eight weeks.  No Americans will do the work, so it goes to Latino immigrants (New York Times, September 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/opinion/20sun3.html?scp=1&sq=The%20Spots%20of%20the%20Stems&st=cse, Access date January 29, 2010).

In the article “Immigration Reform Sought” in the January 2010 edition of the Catholic Courier, Carol May (owner of a 62 acre apple farm) says last year they harvested only half of the normal apple crop because the migrants who normally do the work were afraid to come for fear of being arrested (Annette Jimenez, Catholic Courier, January 2010, “Immigration Reform Sought”, Access date January 29, 2010). In fact, Justice for Immigrants says

 A recent study produced by the Pew Hispanic Center reveals that “Rapid increases in the foreign-born population at the state level are not associated with negative effects on the employment of native-born workers.” In fact, given that the number of native born low wage earners is falling nationally, immigrants are playing an important role in offsetting that decline.  The Urban Institute reports that between 2000 and 2005 the total number of low wage workers declined by approximately 1.8 million while the number of unskilled immigrant workers increased by 620,000, thus offsetting the total decline by about a third. (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, "Countering the Myths", Access Date January 29, 2010).    

Likewise, one might suspect that crime rates might increase with an influx of people without steady work.  However, according to Justice for Immigrants

Recent research has shown that immigrant communities do not increase the crime rate and that newly arriving immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, "Countering the Myths").  

One might also logically think that illegal immigrants would not pay taxes.  If the government has no record of them, then why pay taxes.  However, according to Justice for Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes.  Between one half and three quarters of undocumented immigrants pay state and federal taxes.  They also contribute to Medicare and provide as much as 7 billion dollars a year to the Social Security Fund.  Further still, undocumented workers pay sales taxes where applicable and property taxes—directly if they own and indirectly if they rent.   Americans (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, "Countering the Myths").

Then there is the question of national security against terrorist.  The USCCB Migration office offers three comments on this. 


  1. Immigrants were not responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;
  2. Legalization would enhance national security by bringing undocumented immigrants “in from the shadows,” thereby allowing the government to keep better track of who is in the United States;
  3. National security is not effectively enhanced by trying to stop people from coming to the United States, but by improving the effectiveness of background checks on those who do.  (Walter Ewing, "Immigration Policy for the 21st Century: the Case of Legalization of Undocumented Immigrants" USCCB Migrant Policy and Public Affairs Office. (usccb.org/mrs/legaliza.sthml, Access date January 29, 2010).


While we have every right to protect ourselves, Ewing writes, "Attempting to weed out foreign terrorist by trying to close the borders to all immigrants or to those of certain nationalities is akin to never opening your front door for fear that someone might try to rob you. (Ewing,"Immigration Policy for the 21st Century: the Case of Legalization of Undocumented Immigrants" USCCB Migrant Policy and Public Affairs Office)."

Perhaps you have noticed that I have used two terms, immigrants and migrants.  The terms get used interchangeably but there is a difference.  Migrants move from place to place looking for work.  Generally, they are not randomly moving in search of jobs.  Most of them are farm workers, moving according to the seasons, arriving for the harvest season and then moving on.  Migrant workers often do not seek a permanent home in the United States.  They wish to return home to families when they have money.

Immigrants, on the other hand, generally seek to move here.  Even so most would not choose to leave their families.  Generally, people do not leave their ancestral homes without need.  Some come to escape persecution like many of the original U.S. colonists who came seeking religious freedoms.  Others come because there is no work in their own countries.  They come because they see no other choice if they want to provide for their families.

What the immigrants seek is basic needs for food, water, and a decent home.  Everyone has a right to basic needs.  They have a subsequent right to immigrant to have these basic needs.  One consideration for comprehensive immigration reform becomes do we have the people come to the United States to live to have their basic needs fulfilled or is there some way we can help the economy and living situations in their own countries so they do not need to move.  Every one has a right to work with decent and fair wages.  This is a right because it is required for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The bishops of the United States and Mexico joined together in 2003 to issue “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:  A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration.”  In it they write, "Catholic teaching also states that the root causes of migration-poverty, injustice, religious tolerance, armed conflicts-must be addressed so that migrants can remain in their homeland and support their families."  (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:  A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration,” 2003.(http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/strangers-no-longer-together-on-the-journey-of-hope.cfm, Access date January 29, 2010).

What are we to do about this?  As individuals we can give of our time, talent, and treasure.  If you have the financial means, money is the simplest way to help these people.  Regarding time and talent, perhaps you have a gift for helping in some way.  If you are called to be a missionary you could go to their country to provide assistance.  But you do not have to travel to help.  When the immigrants here, there are clinics or other social service agencies where you might volunteer to help them.

What can we do as a country to help these people seeking to immigrate?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of two duties to be understood in immigration law.  The first is for the developed countries to provide assistance and a welcoming hand to those in need.  However, the right to emigrate is described as a qualified right rather than an absolute right.  The term “qualified” indicates that right must be balanced against the rights of other individuals and the second duty (2241).

The second duty of government is to secure its border and enforce immigration law for the sake of the common good, including the safety and well-being of the nation’s inhabitants and the rule of law. Sovereign nations thus have the right and the responsibility to enforce immigration laws and all persons must respect and obey the legitimate exercise of this authority (USCCB Migration Policy and Public Affairs Office, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Issue." (usccb.org/mrs/legal.shtml, Access date January 29, 2010).

With immigration reform we must consider both the process by which people legally immigrant here and what to do with people are already here as illegal immigrants.  Some see the second as an easy question.  If they are here illegally deport them; yes, my ancestors with immigrants but they can here legally.  That may be true but we need to understand how our immigration system has worked.  Our ancestors immigrated here with little restriction.  The immigrants laws as we know them did not exist until 1965.  Today, an unregulated influx of immigrants could prove devastating to the common good.

For the first 153 years of our nation, there was no general law barring entry into the United States . . The beginning of our current immigration code, the Immigration and Nationality Act, was enacted in 1965 (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Response to Undocumented Immigrants: The Arguments”, http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/documents/response-undocumented.pdf, Access Date January 29, 2010).

Thus, as Catholics, we should not seek to close off our borders to everyone without regard to their needs.  Likewise, we should not seek to deport all illegal immigrants.  Justice is not strictly a matter of following the law. Justice includes making sure the law is fair, balancing the needs of the individual against the common good (balance does not necessarily mean a middle ground).  Justice for Immigrants reminds us

While the church supports the rule of law, there are times when laws should be examined through a justice lens and be changed.  In many ways, the current immigration system is broken and contributes to the abuse, exploitation, and even deaths of migrants who otherwise contribute their work and talents to our nations (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Response to Undocumented Immigrants: The Arguments”, ).

We are a country founded on rights, rights for all people.  In “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:  A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration.”  the bishops of Mexico and the United States speak of Due Process Rights.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress eviscerated due process rights for migrants with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which authorizes the detention and deportation of migrants for relatively minor offenses, even after they have served their sentences.  IIRIRA has caused the unjust separation of untold numbers of immigrant families.  We urge the U.S. Congress to revisit this law and to make appropriate changes consistent with due process rights (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:  A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration.” ).

In seeking justice in immigration reform, we must also consider the process by which one can legally move to the United States.  It is a long process that deters people from using legal means of entering the U.S.  (USCCB Migration Policy and Public Affair Office, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Issue” http://usccb.org/mrs/legal.shtml, Access date January 29, 2010).

Now, I do not mean to suggest that when a person applies for a visa to come to the United States that it should be approved immediately.  There are background checks to be done.  We should ask why are they coming?  Do they know where they are going in the U.S.?  There are waiting lists to get into the United States and these waiting lists will not disappear.  Nonetheless, we are obligated to make sure the process moves as quickly as feasible.

The church does not favor illegal immigration in any sense.  It is not good for the migrant, who often suffers abuse by smugglers, exploitation in the workplace, and even death in the desert.  It is not good for society or local communities, because it creates a permanent underclass with no rights and no opportunity to assert them  (USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Questions and Answers Regarding Catholic Church Position on Immigration,”  http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/documents/immigration-q-and-a.pdf, Access Date January 29, 2010).

I hope this helps you to understand why we believe the U.S. Immigration laws are in need of reform.  Here are five principles outlined by the U.S. Bishops:


  • A broad legalization (permanent residency) of the undocumented of all nationalities;
  • Reform of our family-based immigration system to allow family members to reunite with loved ones in the United States;
  • Reform of the employment-base immigration system to provide legal pathways for migrants to come and work in a safe, humane, and orderly manner;
  • Abandonment of the border “blockage” enforcement strategy;
  • Restoration of the process protections for immigrants. (Diocese of Rochester “August Resource Packet,”http://www.dor.org/charities/PDF%20Files/AugustParishPacket.pdf , 3, Access date January 29, 2010).


Like so many issues, immigration reform is not a simple issue. I have struggled with it myself and the research for and the writing of this article helped me better understand why our faith calls us to work for just immigration reform. In considering what to do we must always those seeking to immigrate here and those who have come illegally with the dignity they have been given. They have rights. We are a country founded on rights. We enjoy our rights and have a duty to ensure others have the save rights.

How do you treat the stranger?  Remember what Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40)."

 Bibliography

Please note that many of the following articles are no longer available online. The original link is provided to complete the reference.

Diocese of Rochester “August Resource Packet,” (dor.org/charities/PDF%20Files/AugustParishPacket.pdf, page 3. 2010.  Access date January 29, 2010.

Downes, Lawrence, “The Spots of the Stems,” New York Times, September 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/opinion/20sun3.html?scp=1&sq=The%20Spots%20of%20the%20Stems&st=cse, Access date January 29, 2010.

Ewing, Walter, “Immigration Policy for the 21st Century: the Case for Legalization of Undocumented Immigrants,”USCCB Migration Policy and Public Affair Office. http://usccb.org/mrs/legaliza.shtml, Access date January 29, 2010.

Jimenez, Annette, Catholic Courier, January 2010, “Immigration Reform Sought”http://www.catholiccourier.com/tmp1.cfm?nid=78&articleid=111907&cfid=7197276&cftoken=82698116, Access date January 29, 2010.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:  A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration,” 2003. http://usccb.org/mrs/stranger.shtml, Access date January 29, 2010.

USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Countering the Myths,” http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/myths.html , Access Date January 29, 2010.

USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Immigration Basics,” http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/immigration-basics.html, Access date January 29, 2010).

USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Questions and Answers Regarding Catholic Church Position on Immigration,” http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/documents/immigration-q-and-a.pdf , Access Date January 29, 2010.

USCCB Justice for Immigrants, “Response to Undocumented Immigrants: The Arguments”, http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/documents/response-undocumented.pdf , Access Date January 29, 2010.

USCCB Migration Policy and Public Affair Office, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Issue”http://usccb.org/mrs/legal.shtml, Access date January 29, 2010.

For Further Reading




When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong, the stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you; for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12

Seeking a Just Immigration Law

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