The Right to Migrate, According to Catholic Social Thought

Andrew Yuengert on the Common Good of Immigration

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MALIBU, California, MARCH 20, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The issue of immigration has made headlines in the United States since President George Bush proposed a new policy for temporary workers.



But how does immigration play out in Catholic social thought? Andrew Yuengert -- an associate professor and the John and Francis Duggan Professor of economics at Seaver College at Pepperdine University -- shared with ZENIT that the right to immigrate is not absolute.

It is, however, an important reminder of the dignity of those affected by national policies and is a component of the universal common good, he said.

Q: Why does the use of "rights" language transform the nature of the immigration debate?

Yuengert: The word "rights" is often the last thing that those who are angry about immigration want to hear. Americans often misunderstand what the popes mean when they claim that there is a right to migrate.

In our culture, rights claims are made in an absolute way -- rights are often invoked as a way of ending debate, unless someone else claims a competing right, in which case nothing is resolved and everyone feels aggrieved.

In contrast, a rights claim in Catholic thought is a reminder of the dignity of those affected by our policies. Rights claims are meant to begin debates, not to end them, and to orient those debates toward the real human goods at stake in policy deliberations.

Thus, claims about the rights of migrants are an encouragement to take into account the very real benefits of immigration to immigrants themselves -- not to construct policy solely on the basis of its effects on citizens.

Q: What does it mean that there is a right to migrate, and why does the right exist? How is it connected to the dignity of the human person?

Yuengert: As I said above, rights language is meant to remind us to take into account the effect of our policies on immigrants, as well as on our own people.

We can discover this right by reflecting on what is involved in the migration decision. Emigration is rarely undertaken lightly. There are real losses associated with it: loss of local culture, loss of family connections, and vulnerability to exploitation in a new labor market and culture.

An immigrant is a human being taking a difficult, often risky step in pursuit of his own development. His very act of migrating proclaims that these goods are important to him and his family, and are at risk if he does not migrate.

A person who is moving across national boundaries in pursuit of his family's well-being, his own education, or perhaps fleeing direct physical danger, has a claim on our solicitude for the dignity he expresses in his decision.

Q: In what ways is the right to migrate connected to the basic principles of Catholic social thought known as subsidiarity and solidarity?

Yuengert: The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity safeguard the common good of immigration.

The ability to move across national boundaries in pursuit of a better life is a component of the universal common good. Even if most people never become immigrants, the existence of the option is a real human good that benefits families and countries, through greater economic opportunity and the enriching of cultures through their interaction.

This international common good does not fall within the boundaries of any one country, however, and as a result no country is responsible for guaranteeing the right to migrate.

Since there is no international body that has authority to safeguard the free movement of people across national boundaries, nations are on their honor, so to speak, to safeguard this right.

Solidarity in immigration is a firm commitment to this right -- it encourages us to see in the immigrant as another person, whose dignity is at stake in our policy deliberations and who has no one to speak for him as a person if we do not.

The principle of subsidiarity demands that the immigration policies of local communities -- in this case, nation states -- be respected by international organizations.

These two principles provide the necessary balance needed to make immigration policy. Solidarity discovers in the humanity of immigrants the right to migrate; subsidiarity respects the just prerogatives of the nation, which must balance the good of its own citizens against the real benefits to immigrants.

Q: Does Catholic social teaching favor unrestricted migration? Shouldn't states have the right to reasonably control their own borders, especially in light of national security concerns?

Yuengert: The right to migrate is not absolute. It is like the right to property, which may be abridged in certain situations, but not like the right to life, which may never be abridged.

When immigration threatens other rights -- the right of a people to basic security, for example -- it may be restricted in light of those other rights. Like the right to property, though, the right to migrate should not be abridged lightly, since it restricts a fundamental human good -- the initiative of the immigrant in promoting his own or his family's well-being.

Many have made use of legitimate security concerns to advocate restrictions on legal immigration. If immigration were the principal threat to U.S. national security, this would be a good argument for restricting it. Immigration is not, however, the primary threat to our security.

The biggest threat is the disorder at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. We do not do a good job of screening legal immigrants for terrorists when they enter the United States and we do not keep track of them afterward.

If we kept better tabs on immigrants, we would not worry so much about their numbers. If we restrict the number of legal immigrants, there will be more illegal immigrants, whom we do not track at all. Then a terrorist will simply attempt to enter the country illegally, or as one of the 35 million temporary visitors to the United States each year.

Q: Many conservative critics of open migration policies fear that mass migration will lead to cultural breakdown, rising poverty and crime. Are these fears unfounded?

Yuengert: A hundred years ago, the same fears were expressed about the Jewish and Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe: They would not assimilate, they were a public burden, they were undemocratic and they were potentially disloyal. Today our culture includes Italian, Jewish, Greek and Polish influences and is none the worse for it.

Are the new immigrants that different from the old? They are hardworking, eager to succeed, and still attached to their home countries and ways of life. To tell the truth, given the state of U.S. culture, a large influx of devoutly religious immigrants might be a blessing.

Because many immigrants are poor, they do raise our poverty rate. This puts a real strain on our generous social safety net, particularly in the states and localities where immigrants concentrate, and has resulted in appropriate restrictions on immigrant access to welfare.

These costs would not be so large if they were spread evenly across the country. A good case can be made for federal help for those states and localities most burdened by providing social services for immigrants.

Immigrants do not raise our crime rate. Almost all of them are here to work, not to steal. The children of poor immigrants are at somewhat greater risk of crime, but this is not different than the risk of anyone who grows up poor.

Q: Are there tangible economic benefits to an open migration policy?

Yuengert: The benefits to immigration are similar to the benefits of free trade: The United States can take full advantage of its economic strengths - high-tech goods and services -- without having to give up on goods made with less skilled labor.

The benefits are distributed unevenly, though, and the costs are born by those U.S. workers who compete directly with immigrants for jobs.

Unskilled wages have fallen slightly due to immigration; this decline, though small, is troubling, even though it is a result of a huge benefit conferred on immigrants themselves, who sometimes experience a fivefold increase in earnings.

Although immigrants impose large fiscal burdens on the handful of states in which they cluster, they are a net benefit to the federal government. Because they are young, they will help to pay the government's bills when the baby boomers retire, through their contributions to Social Security and Medicare.

Q: Are states morally obligated to accept migrant workers? If so, how can their interests be balanced with the native population and the common good?

Yuengert: The second question captures the state's moral obligation. It is obligated to balance the interests of immigrants with its national common good. Although Pope John Paul II encourages developed nations to be generous, he does not offer specific advice beyond his exhortations.

The actual balancing of interests requires the virtue of prudence -- it is a difficult decision, requiring respect for the dignity of immigrant and native alike.

The Pope is concerned that nations do not even attempt to balance their own interests and those of immigrants, but treat the inconveniences of immigration as intolerable costs and ignore completely the substantial benefits of immigration to immigrants.

Q: Should immigrants be "naturalized" both culturally and linguistically, or should native populations work to respect migrant cultures and not encourage them to assimilate?

Yuengert: The assumption in Pope John Paul II's writings is that immigrants will assimilate. By immigrating, they join a new community, with a new common good. The right to migrate implies certain duties on the part of immigrants: Learn the local language, pay taxes, be a good member of your local community and obey the law.

This last obligation makes illegal immigration problematic, since it involves the immigrant in a contradiction: The very act of immigration is a violation of the laws of the community the immigrant joins. Any time there is a law that is regularly flouted without consequence, respect for all law is put at risk.

There are two remedies for this problem. The first is akin to the repeal of Prohibition: the restrictions of immigration law are too great a burden for potential immigrants. Immigrants seeking a better life immigrate in defiance of this law, putting respect for all law at risk, so the restrictions should be eased.

The second remedy is to enforce the current law more vigorously. This may require more stringent measures than we are currently willing to impose: enforcing heavy penalties for employers who employ illegal immigrants, expedited deportation and extended detention of illegal immigrants while the wheels of due process turn.