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The Catholic Church and immigration

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Among the many controversies swirling through the media pinwheel of late is the issue of immigration. Locally, Gov. Deval Patrick made headlines recently when he backed a series of recommendations that included giving in-state tuition rates and driver's licenses to persons not lawfully in this country. Nationally, sponsors are pushing for a vote before the end of the year on legislation in Congress to allow children of undocumented aliens to gain legal status for education and employment purposes. Internationally, the New York Times reported on a November statement on migration by Pope Benedict XVI, focusing on the Holy Father's reference to securing a nation's borders as a legitimate state interest. Because immigration is in the news, I offer a synopsis of Catholic teaching on the matter.

Pope Pius XII issued the first comprehensive papal document on the subject in 1952. The statement, "Exsul Familia Nazarethana" ("The Exiled Family from Nazareth"), opened with a reference to the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. The pope recommended Joseph, Mary and Jesus "as the archetype of every refugee family," serving "for all times and places" as the "models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil."

Pius XII explained that "the natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened (to those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands). For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all."

There is a human "right to migrate," according to Pius XII, requiring adequate reasons or justifications before a country closes its borders to "needy and decent people from other nations." The presumption of right of access must prevail unless clearly rebutted by extenuating circumstances. One possible justification for turning outsiders away would be the receiving country's lack of a "public wealth" or resources sufficient to accommodate the influx of immigrants.

Pope John Paul II dealt directly with the problem of illegal immigration in his 1996 message for World Migration Day, "Undocumented Migrants." The Holy Father was clear that "illegal immigration should be prevented" but was equally adamant that "his irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored."

John Paul II referred several times to the prudence and delicacy required on the part of countries faced with illegal immigration. Despite the emergency conditions that may arise, the receiving country's response should not "become one of reticence or exclusivity, because thousands would suffer the consequences as victims of situations that seem destined to deteriorate instead of being resolved." Nor should policy be dictated by attitudes and behaviors "which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations."

John Paul II directed Catholics and Church institutions to welcome and extend care to immigrants regardless of their legal status. Because "the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere," it "is the task of the various dioceses actively to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community." The Holy Father asserted that "the illegal migrant comes before us like that 'stranger' in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself."

As already mentioned, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated Church teaching in a message released in November in advance of next year's World Migrant and Refugee Day. He recognized that "States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host country, respecting its laws and its national identity."

Consistent with papal teaching, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in a 2000 pastoral letter, "Welcoming the Stranger Among Us": "Without condoning undocumented migration, the Church supports the human rights of all people and offers them pastoral care, education, and social services, no matter what the circumstances of entry into this country, and it works for the respect of the human dignity of all -- especially those who find themselves in desperate circumstances. We recognize that nations have the right to control their borders. We also recognize and strongly assert that all human persons, created as they are in the image of God, possess a fundamental dignity that gives rise to a more compelling claim to the conditions worthy of human life. Accordingly, the Church also advocates legalization opportunities for the maximum number of undocumented persons, particularly those who have built equities and otherwise contributed to their communities."

In light of that last sentence, the U.S. Bishops have opposed as counterproductive federal legislation mandating the denial of state driver's licenses to aliens not lawfully present in the country. The bishops also support the proposed federal bill mentioned above that, besides making it possible for children of undocumented immigrants to gain legal status by attending college, would permit states to qualify these students for in-state tuition rates under certain conditions.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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