Rights of migrant and country

In considering the issue of immigration, we need to keep two basic rights in perspective

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“They took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26).

In reflecting upon the complicated and difficult subject of immigration, I am reminded of Simon of Cyrene. We know nearly nothing about him, like the countless many throughout history who have left their homes and countries in search of a better place. All we know of him is contained in a single sentence recorded in three of the Gospels. But by virtue of our baptism, we know much more about him because we are all Simon of Cyrene, a foreigner and sojourner, called to pick up our cross and to follow Jesus to our true home in heaven with the passport of faith.

Scripture reminds us that God hears the cries of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (Exodus 22:20-22), and that we are called to be especially compassionate to them. Who are the widows and orphans of our time? They are those women whose boyfriends or husbands have abandoned responsibility to them and the unborn lives in the womb threatened with being aborted. And what of the foreigner? The command of God to the Israelites is that which the Church continues to repeat: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the native born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33).

But here we must speak of two basic rights that the Church affirms when it comes to the subject of immigration: the right of people to migrate and the right of a country to regulate its borders. Both must be respected. I shall try to speak to both.

If the Church affirms a person’s right to migrate, it’s because it is the central narrative of our faith. It begins with the banishment of fallen man and woman from the Garden of Eden and continues with the scattering of the people in Babel (Genesis 11:8-9); it is seen in Abraham’s call to “go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1); it dominates the Exodus account and the long suffering of the Jewish people during the Babylonian exile.

It is the setting for the birth of Christ during the uprooted times of the census (Luke 2:1-5) and the Holy Family’s subsequent flight to Egypt as refugees from the murderous rage of Herod (Matthew 2:13-15). We find it in the promises of the Beatitudes, with the meek who will “inherit the land” (Matthew 5:5), and in the very life of Jesus, who has “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And it culminates in the cross of Christ that Simon of Cyrene, a foreigner, helps to carry (Luke 23:26).

While clearly and passionately defending the right of a people to migrate, Pope Francis also affirms the Church’s teaching regarding a country’s right to regulate and control its borders. In in a 2017 interview, the Holy Father said, “Can borders be controlled? Yes, each country has the right to control its borders, who comes in and who goes out, and those countries at risk — from terrorism or such things — have even more of a right to control them. …”

In affirming this right, though, the Church also specifies that a country must not exaggerate its sovereignty. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that while countries may exercise the right to subject immigration to “various juridical conditions,” they are also “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” (n. 2241).

But it also must be acknowledged that there are other reasons for border security that must be considered. While the U.S. border with Mexico is not the largest, it is the largest “corridor” of migration in the world. And it also is a vast corridor for transnational criminal organizations and drug traffickers to exploit. And let us not forget human trafficking and the sex trade. So if the Church speaks of the rights of people to migrate, she also affirms the right of every country to pursue an immigration policy and to protect its borders so as to promote the common good.

Certainly the crisis we are experiencing with illegal immigration lies in great part because the system for legal immigration is so broken — a problem that both political parties have long acknowledged but failed to fix. We desperately need comprehensive reform of the immigration system.

For many years now, I have advocated for action by government leaders to come up with laws that protect our national identity and sovereign borders and also recognize America’s undeniable role as a sanctuary for those who arrived here many years ago with no intent to do harm. I remain disappointed that no common-sense solutions have been agreed to. In the meantime, families suffer, and people live in the shadows.

One final fact to consider is that of remittances. This is the money that migrant workers send back to their families in developing countries. Because it goes directly to families and therefore helps their communities, it is considered far more efficient than any direct foreign-aid program. And, in fact, according to the World Bank, remittances far exceed the value of direct foreign aid. So remittances from migrant workers is the best poverty-reduction program there is.

No other country in the world has been as welcoming to migrants as the United States, but it goes without saying, though, that we need to encourage our politicians to work together to reform the immigration system and to provide for common-sense protections of our borders. But let us also be mindful of our Christian obligation to be compassionate to the foreigner among us, be they documented or undocumented, for we, too, are Simon of Cyrene.

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