Strangers No Longer: Immigration and the Church

I’ve been avoiding writing a post on this topic, because I don’t particularly like confrontation, and for some reason this is an issue which seems to spark very intense reactions in people. The issue I’m talking about is immigration reform. So, by way of a disclaimer: You might not agree with me, and since I am presenting the position of the Bishops’, what I really mean is that you may not agree with them. I hope we can talk about why you might not. But, you’ve got to know that cafeteria is closed here at Fumbling Toward Grace, so if you’re not ready to hear or respond with respect to what the Church has to say about how we treat immigrants, you may not want to keep reading. (But I sincerely hope you will!)

Of course, in scripture there are many references to “the stranger” in the Old Testament. One of the first mentions of the stranger is in Exodus, where God extols the Israelites,You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

In Leviticus, God says to the people, “Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:10) Again, God commands His people, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:32-43)

In Deuteronomy, God says, “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 26:12)  [All taken from New American Standard Bible]

Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve done biblical exegesis, so I’m not going to earnestly attempt it here, but, I think there are a few things we can agree on. The word stranger in this context isn’t merely referring to someone we don’t know yet (though that would seem to be part of the definition). No, I think it’s clear that stranger here is meant to be a foreigner. Someone who is not of Israel and who comes from another place. In other words, an immigrant or sojourner.

Another thing I think seems clear from these passages is that God commands hospitality and generosity to the “stranger” before and above the law. Allowing the “stranger” to glean the fallen wheat, giving from one’s excess to the “stranger”, and the commandment to “love the stranger as yourself” do not seem to be, in any way, shape or form, predicated on that “stranger’s” status in the land of Israel. Interesting.

For more in-depth discussion of Immigration, the Bible, and “the stranger”, see Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible by M. Daniel Carroll.

Now, it’s not my goal here to de-bunk every myth about immigrants, or to proposed specific policy solutions for immigration reform. People much, much smarter than me will have to be ones to do that. Rather, I’m interested here in posting the underlying principles, and guiding values that must be the foundation of any immigration reform in this country. Everything that I am posting (with the exception of above) is taken from the 2003 USCCB document “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”.

“We judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. The treatment of migrants challenges the consciences of elected officials, policymakers, enforcement officers, residents of border communities, and providers of legal aid and social services, many of whom share our Catholic faith.

In preparing this statement we have spoken with migrants, public officials, enforcement officers, social justice activists, pastors, parishioners, and community leaders in both the United States and Mexico as part of a process that lasted two years. Our dialogue has revealed a common desire for a more orderly system that accommodates the reality of migration and promotes just application of civil law. We seek to measure the interests of all parties in the migration phenomenon against the guidelines of Catholic social teaching and to offer a moral framework for embracing, not rejecting, the reality of migration between our two nations. We invite Catholics and persons of good will in both nations to exercise their faith and to use their resources and gifts to truly welcome the stranger among us (cf. Mt 25:35).” (paragraph 6-7)

Migration in Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic teaching has a long and rich tradition in defending the right to migrate. Based on the life and teachings of Jesus, the Church’s teaching has provided the basis for the development of basic principles regarding the right to migrate for those attempting to exercise their God-given human rights. Catholic teaching also states that the root causes of migration–poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, armed conflicts–must be addressed so that migrants can remain in their homeland and support their families. (28)

“In his landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris, Blessed Pope John XXIII expands the right to migrate as well as the right to not have to migrate: “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.” (30)

Pope John Paul II also addresses the more controversial topic of undocumented migration and the undocumented migrant. In his 1995 message for World Migration Day, he notes that such migrants are used by developed nations as a source of labor. Ultimately, the pope says, elimination of global underdevelopment is the antidote to illegal immigration. Ecclesia in America, which focuses on the Church in North and South America, reiterates the rights of migrants and their families and the respect for human dignity “even in cases of non-legal immigration.” (32)

The Bishops then lay out five principles that must guide the Church’s view on migration, and by extension, our society’s approach to immigration reform, if it is to serve the common good.

1. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
34. 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.Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
35. The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people.
15 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 should provide ways to accommodate this right.

3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.
36. The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
37. 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. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
38. Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.

Seems pretty straight-forward right? People have the right to not have to migrate; people have the right to migrate if they must (due to poverty or other reasons); nations have the right to secure their borders, acknowledging that powerful nations have more of an obligation to accommodate migration; refugees need to be protected, and the human dignity of every person (including the undocumented) needs to be respected.

I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Church.

I’d like to close with an excerpt from a speech that Archbishop Chaput of Denver made in June 2009:

The Catholic commitment to the dignity of the immigrant comes from exactly the same roots as our commitment to the dignity of the unborn child. Any Catholic who truly understands his or her faith knows that the right to life precedes and creates the foundation for every other human right. There’s no getting around the priority of that fundamental right to life. But being “prolife” also means that we need to make laws and social policies that will care for those people already born that no one else will defend.”

In the United States today, we employ a permanent underclass of human beings who build our roads, pick our fruit, clean our hotel rooms, and landscape our lawns. Most of these men and women, like millions of immigrants before them, abide by our laws and simply want a better life for their families. Many have children who are American citizens, or who have been in America so long that they don’t know any other homeland. But they live in a legal limbo. They’re vital to our economy, but they have few legal protections, and thousands of families have been separated by arrests and deportations.

We need to remember that how we treat the weak, the infirm, the elderly, the unborn child and the foreigner reflects on our own humanity. We become what we do, for good or for evil. The Catholic Church respects the law, including immigration law. We respect those men and women who have the difficult job of enforcing it. We do not encourage or help anyone to break the law. We believe Americans have a right to solvent public institutions, secure borders and orderly regulation of immigration.

But we can’t ignore people in need, and we won’t be quiet about laws that don’t work — or that, in their “working,” create impossible contradictions and suffering. Despite all of the heated public argument over the past few years, Americans still find themselves stuck with an immigration system that adequately serves no one. We urgently need the kind of immigration reform that will address our economic and security needs, but will also regularize the status of the many decent undocumented immigrants who help our society to grow. A new Congress and a new president now serve in Washington. They have an extraordinary opportunity to act quickly and justly to solve this problem.

We become what we do, for good or for evil. If we act and speak like bigots, that’s what we become. If we act with justice, intelligence, common sense and mercy, then we become something quite different. We become the people and the nation God intended us to be. Our country’s immigration crisis is a test of our humanity. Whether we pass it is entirely up to us. That’s why this gathering is important. That’s why we’re here today. And that’s why I hope all of you will take part in this national work for immigration reform as vigorously and unselfishly as possible. The future of our country depends on it. [taken from Catholic Online article 6/16/2009]

The way my Church responds to “the stranger” among us, including the immigrant, is just one of the many, many reasons why I am so very proud to be Catholic.


7 thoughts on “Strangers No Longer: Immigration and the Church

  1. This is a topic that I haven’t really thought much about or done any research on. My brother wrote a post on this not too long ago. Your post and his are in agreement with each other, so it has given me something to think about! I know what you mean about writing about “hot topics” but you have made excellent points with love!

  2. I think that the United Methodist Church would say the same thing as does the Catholic Church.

    Thank you for your posting. We all share the Earth. We all have ancestors who came from foreign lands.

  3. Love it! And I agree with the Church’s position entirely. As we all know, though, our elected officials have a very difficult time passing legislation that is in accordance with Church teaching. I’m interested to see how the immigration reform goes. I think most people reject making immigration easier based on their fears that came into being with the events of 9/11/2001 and get exacerbated by an unstable world.

    But all in all, I really appreciate you putting the Bishops/Church’s statements on your blog. I think more people need to reflect on them and think on our present situation. Unfortunately, I don’t have much trust in any of our elected officials to do anything legislatively that I’ll be all that happy about…mainly because I don’t see where most of them align their positions with Catholic teaching.

  4. This is so refreshing to read! I especially appreciate your citing the USCCB, and their humility toward this topic, “We judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us,” and furthering that thought by providing Chaput’s, “But we can’t ignore people in need, and we won’t be quiet about laws that don’t work — or that, in their “working,” create impossible contradictions and suffering.” Clearly, the Holy Spirit is at work in our Church.

  5. I really appreciated this post. As someone who’s mostly had a wary (and admittedly redneck) view on this subject (well, can you call it a view if you haven’t thought it through?), this is something I probably wouldn’t investigate myself. You’ve done a great job outlining it all here, and I found it really helpful. I’m glad I had to stop and think about this! Archbishop Chaput had some particularly beautiful points.

  6. Sarah,

    The few points I would offer are these,

    – Unfortunately I must disagree with Bishop Chaput when he states that those who immigrate here illegally have respect for our laws as they obviously don’t they are violating it everyday by their very presence. They are also violating it when the pursue work. Or if they don’t work, they are violating it by collecting welfare. I also must disagree with him when he states to put bluntly that our economy depends on people who basically become slaves in America. This belief furthers the afore mentioned practices by legitimizing these poor people’s social status. Also, when Chaput states that many families have been separated by arrest or deportation, it ignores the fact that offenders have been arrested or deported for committing crimes.

    -Poverty does not make someone a refugee who requires political protection. When those like apparently Bishop Chaput discuss what is so wrong with current immigration, the talk is always of the refugees, and never of the millions of pounds of drugs and guns streaming across the border. Along with violent criminals, and apparently now Somali Islamic terrorists as was recently mentioned in the news. A finally secure border is absolutely essential to our ability to actually provide for the poor among us as opposed to exploiting them.

    -While this may or may not be a “Catholic,” view, I believe it is the right role of government to provide the security needed for us, as the church to provide the charity needed by our neighbors. It is not the right role for the government to be involved providing that charity itself. It is not able to do it in anyway that is low cost, effective, responsive to people’s changing needs, or based in our faith in Jesus.

    -Finally our “new” president and congress, have no more interest in reforming immigration than the last congress or administration. There is too much money to be made on the modern day American Slave Trade. Not only that but eventually there is hope for another Amnesty Act during which a few million people, at least, will become no questions asked citizens, securing the power of the political party who was able to do it for generations. For all the “hope and change,” it seems like more of, “in with the new boss, same as the old boss.”

    Sorry for the tirade.

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