Immigration and the Common Good

Thomas Aquinas gives an example of a just immigration policy

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Faith Justice

As reported in a number of news sources, there are now two separate “migrant caravans” heading towards the US-Mexico border, totaling about 10,000 migrants from Central American countries.  Their crawl to the border is like a slow fuse sure to reignite the contentious debate over immigration.  Protecting migrants is part of the Church’s “bigger agenda,” at least according to one prominent U.S. prelate, so it is an issue of interest to Catholics, especially considering many of these particular migrants are Catholic.  (Notwithstanding that our prelates often regurgitate liberal arguments, making it appear as if the Church is more interested in politics than the Gospel.)  What then does the Church have to say about immigration?

A word first about what might be called the “Gospel defense” of some form of open borders.  Frequently Catholics, especially those who profess to be committed to “social justice,” will mistakenly say that because Our Lord commanded us to “welcome the stranger” we must always allow migrants to enter our country.  This treats the Gospel as little more than a political agenda.  The evangelical commands of Our Lord have to do with our personal behavior and should not be read as a political platform.  While there is a social dimension to living in accord with them, they are not Our Lord’s blueprint for society but His recipe for leaven.

Saying that society should “welcome the stranger” is nonsensical.  It is always a person who welcomes another person.  Persons are not welcomed by institutions but are quite literally institutionalized.  “Welcoming the stranger” through open borders then becomes little more than a command to build cheap hotels.  The Gospel is not really directed to the social issue of immigration except as a call for individual Christians to open up their homes to welcome the immigrant.

More to the point, society, and in particular the State, is concerned with a different principle—namely, protecting and promoting the common good of the citizens of that society.  In an age that idolizes inclusiveness, this carries with it an important corollary.   Citizenship within a given society means that the citizen has earned a certain priority over the non-citizen.  This means that although, as the Church teaches, “when there are just reasons in favor of it, a man must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there” (Pacem in Terris, 25), the right to emigrate is not absolute.  The State must consider its citizens first.  Or, as John XXIII put it, the State has a duty to accept immigrants “so far as the common good of their own community, rightly understood, permits” (ibid, 106).  Among the conditions comprising the common good is the rule of law so that just laws must both be enacted and enforced.  Those who knowingly violate a just law must be called to task for it or else harm has been done to the common good.  Just laws must be enforced out of respect for the rule of law or else risk a steady descent into chaos.

The right to emigrate being conditional on “just reasons in favor of it,” a country may (and should) have a vetting process to discern whether there are just reasons.  What constitutes “just reasons” is a matter of political prudence, but, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “a certain order” should be observed (ST I-II, q.105 a.3 ).  The Angelic Doctor gives an example of what a just immigration policy looks like when he discusses the immigration policy of Israel in the Old Testament.  Aquinas says that whenever a foreigner sought to be admitted into community with the Israelites:

“they were not at once admitted to citizenship…The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.  Hence it was that the Law prescribed in respect of certain nations that had close relations with the Jews (viz., the Egyptians among whom they were born and educated, and the Idumeans, the children of Esau, Jacob’s brother), that they should be admitted to the fellowship of the people after the third generation; whereas others (with whom their relations had been hostile, such as the Ammonites and Moabites) were never to be admitted to citizenship…”

Notice that St. Thomas sets the immigrant in relation to the common good.  The immigrant must be willing not only to share in the common good but also to contribute to it.  Likewise it is with the common good in view that he says that those who come from nations hostile to Israel were never admitted to citizenship.

The Church, in her wisdom, has much to offer our country as it faces various crises, especially with regards to the ongoing issue of immigration.  Unfortunately there are many in the Church who are following false prophets and ignoring Tradition in favor of political correctness.  St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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