Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Ethics of Immigration

The "jungle" outside Calais, France, where hundreds of illegal immigrants were busted this week attempting to cross clandestinely into the U.K.
This week the liberal presses throughout the world are decrying the "inhumane" treatment of illegal immigrants busted at the French port of Calais attempting to illegally enter the UK. As with most stories of this type, the emphasis is placed not on the fact that a substantial population is illegally squatting in a country and attempting to pass clandestinely into another one that does not want them, but rather on the "conditions" in French society that makes this type of behavior "necessary" on the part of the migrants. When illegals are busted, the French liberal presses are asking "What did we do wrong?"

Unchecked illegal immigration is a bane on any country, and it is illogical to tell these host countries that they need to permit unrestricted access to all manner of illegals from God knows where to come in for any reason. The media is trying to turn this crackdown into a human interest story by focusing on the poor conditions that these migrants were fleeing from when they came to Europe. Some fled starvation in war torn Somalia, others were seeking asylum from reprisals by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The unstated point is that we are all expected to feel so very sorry for these migrants and extend our sympathy to them in their quest to illegally enter other countries.

Let me return some sanity to this issue by pointing out that most countries have legal methods for persons to seek political asylum, and if such legal methods exist I can hardly see a justification for the type of clandestine, illegal operation these immigrants were attempting. Let's also be reminded that it is not as if the French police went out busting down doors and dragging these migrants out in the night; these immigrants were very publicly camping out in a tent city on the outskirts of Calais, in open and arrogant disregard for French law. The arrogance with which these illegal immigrants flaunt their crimes is staggering to me (and yes, sneaking into a country illegally is a crime just as much as sneaking into a house illegally would be). I am amazed at how they rally together by the thousands to protest for equal rights and care at the expense of the host country's taxpayers. When I see these rallies (like the one in Los Angeles a few years back), I stare at the TV flabbergasted and think, "Why doesn't the border guard surround this mob right now and start asking for Green Cards?"

But let's look at this problem rationally. Clearly, as the Catechism states, persons must have freedom to move and migrate to improve their lives and the lot of their family. It states:

The more prosperous nations are 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 of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him (CCC 2241).

So there is a right of persons to migrate, which is not in dispute. My dispute is with the way this right is absolutized in the modern world, and understood in a sense which no nation or kingdom has ever understood it in the past. Migration is not an absolute right that cannot be denied under any circumstances; in fact, migrants are obliged to render a certain duty towards their host country, the first of which (the CCC tells us) is to obey that country's laws. The very same paragraph quoted above goes on to say:

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens (CCC 2241).

An immigrant is obliged to share in the civic burdens of society and show gratitude towards their host country - but how can they do that if they violate the fundamental integrity of that nation's laws by violating those very laws they have a duty to uphold in the act of entering the country? It is like if I man were to kidnap a woman violently so that he could force her into marriage; how can a true marriage, built on love and mutual respect, be built if the very foundation of that union is based on fear and violence? An immigrant cannot enter the country illegally in flagrant defiance of the law and then claim that they are law-abiding persons. A law-abiding persons abide by laws, especially laws that dictate who can and cannot enter the country.

If we look back at Catholic (or rather I should say, secular medieval) tradition, we see that nowhere in history did kings, popes or prelates ever show the scruple they now show regarding the rights of immigrants. It was taken for granted in the Middle Ages that a king could close or open his borders as he saw fit. There were times when the Kings of England forbid anyone from leaving the isles (or from landing). There were many around who disagreed with these policies, but no pope or bishop ever denied that the king had a right to close his kingdom's borders if he so chose.

Likewise in ancient Rome, during the closing centuries of the Empire when the border was constantly under siege by Germanic invaders, we hear nothing of any bishop or pope lecturing Theodosius or Honorius on any natural inalienable right of the poor Germans to migrate into the more prosperous Roman domain. It was taken for granted in the ancient world and the Middle Ages that the ruler of the kingdom could decide, with absolute authority, who could and could not enter the realm. Exception was made for ecclesiastics, of course, and the only papal condemnations of these restrictions of movement comes when the kings tried to stop priests from coming into their realms during various phases of history. But you would be hard pressed to show me an unmitigated right to immigrate in tradition.

The reason for this is that for most of European history, the kingdom was regarded as the extension of a house; in many cases it literally was, if the nobles and the king were all of one bloodline. People swore allegiance to a personal king and saw him as a father figure, and the nation, the patria, was the extension of king's paternal authority. What the house was to the father the kingdom was to the king (at least in theory); hence the literal Latin for nation or kingdom is patria, or "fatherland."

Therefore, to sneak into the domain of the king illegally was tantamount to breaking into a private home. Just as a private individual has the right to bar from or admit into his home whomever he chose and on whatever conditions, so too did the kingdom have this authority with regards to its own borders.

I know many will say that the concept of the nation as an extension of the king's patrimony has passed away with monarchy, but it is still true that in the democratic society the state is still the "commonwealth"; i.e., the common inheritance of all. In effect, the situation is now that the nation represents the common inheritance of all its citizens, which is passed on and established by the sacrifices, legislation and labor of the prior generations. Just because monarchy has regrettably passed away does not mean we should stop seeing the nation as a type of "house" or extended family. Just as a person has a right to defend his own home from unwanted intruders, so a nation as a right (even a duty) to protect its own borders - to secure its own "house."

To put this in context and bring it back to immigration: Let's say I break into your house. Let's say that when you discover me in your house, you insist that I leave. But I say, "I've made all the beds and washed the dishes and did the laundry and swept the floors. I've done all the things you don't like to do. I'm hard-working and honest (except for when I broke into your house).

Now, here is the insanity in all this: according to those who support unrestricted illegal immgration, you are required to let me stay in your house. You are required to add me to your family's insurance plan. You are required to educate my kids. You are required to provide other benefits to me and to my family (my husband will do all of your yard work because he is also hard-working and honest, except for that breaking in part).

If you try to call the police or force me out, I will call my friends who will picket your house carrying signs that proclaim my RIGHT to be there. It's only fair, after all, because you have a nicer house than I do, and I'm just trying to better myself. I'm a hard-working and honest, person, except for well, you know, I did break into your house. And oh yeah, I get a free education, where you have to pay your own way through college. I live in your house, contributing only a fraction of the cost of my keep, and there is nothing you can do about it without being accused of cold, uncaring, selfish, prejudiced, and bigoted behavior.

Oh yeah, I DEMAND that you learn MY LANGUAGE so you can communicate with me. And don't forget to make sure your forms are in MY language - I need to understand them...

This is absolute insanity. The state has a perfectly legitimate right to admit or not admit whom it chooses for whatever reason (so long as it has some legal process for getting people in, but even then I would say it would be justified in restricting immigration considerably).

We also have to stop being duped by those who pull the rug over our eyes by focusing only on the human interest element of these stories. I know a Mexican immigrant from Tiajuana will probably be able to find a better life in the Midwest; I have no doubt that the Somalis arrested in France were fleeing poverty and war. These things may be true - but we cannot continue to focus narrowly on the plight of the individual immigrant and ignore the cumulative impact of millions of them. We are talking about movements of persons in the millions and millions, movements of populations not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. Any nation that failed to see this problem cumulatively would be acting at its own peril; I'd say ignoring this problem would be suicidal. The Romans were ultimately unable to fight off the Germanic invasions, but they would have been even less effective had they saw each German as someone just trying to better himself and his family; at least the Romans had the common sense to see unwanted illegal immigration for what it is: nothing other than a foreign invasion.

I also hope Catholics stop being duped by the argument that just because we are a "nation of immigrants" means that we must grant unrestricted and unlimited access to all immigrants until the end of time, as if there is no difference between settling an untamed wilderness and coming to a depressed economy with an already overflooded labor market; as if there is no cultural distinction between a largely homogenous European-Christian influx in the 19th century and the Muslim, Hindu and non-European immigration we see today; as if the fact that the verdant fields and limitless forests of frontier America were enough to sustain the immigrants of the 1800's means that the overtaxed, debt-ridden populace of the 21st century is able to accomodate an unlimited number of non-productive beneficiaries of state handouts indefinitely. Don't even go there with that "nation of immigrants" nonsense.

Well, I've ranted long enough about this. The bottom line is that if you want to come in, obey the law and do it by the book. That's what any decent person expects of someone entering their home, and if we really believe that our country is a Republic (res publica - public thing or common work) then we'd be utterly insane not to expect the same of those pounding at our door.

I'd like to hear especially from some of the readers in the UK - how do you feel about hordes of illegal immigrants crowding the shores of Brittany just waiting for their chance to sneak into your country illegally?


Kate said...

As a legal immigrant, rants like this always make me mad as hell. The argument against unrestricted immigration is a shameful straw man, and I'm disappointed that you would deploy it. That CCC passage you quote makes it pretty clear that the first responsibility is to each country to welcome immigrants within reason - and there is nothing, absolutely freakin' NOTHING welcoming in the least about THIS country's immigration laws. I don't know about Britain's, but I know many western European nations have immigration laws that foster - deliberately - a permanent underclass by withholding the rights of full citizenship, sometimes for several generations. The call for reform is real, and needed. That so many immigrate to countries with such shameful restrictions is more testimony to the persistence and plain good luck of some immigrants than to the sanity or charity of the host country.

Immigrating is hard, and it is expensive. If you were fleeing a murderer, I sure as hell hope you would feel welcome to break into my house to hide. If you were homeless, I wouldn't scorn you for sleeping in my dog house (though I would try to remedy the situation ASAP!). If you were starving, your right to food trumps my right to keep a surplus. At least, so suggests both Augustine and Aquinas.

I don't think any country is obliged to welcome every immigrant, without requirements or restrictions. But in the US, the fees for simply submitting the complicated, cumbersome paperwork has doubled in the 5 years since I began the process of gaining legal residency (I haven't even started on citizenship. Not sure I want it some days. Residency now costs several thousand dollars) And I'm probably the easiest category of immigrant - only two forms (plus fees), biometrics, vaccinations, full physical, interview, - oh, and having to do it all over again to renew after two years, with testimony regarding my marriage from numerous sources. Did I mention that they lost my paperwork halfway through there?

I'm educated, and, unlike refugees, I didn't have to acquire legal counsel, piles of confirming paperwork and documentation, proof of citizenship and birth records from a country hostile to me, all of the while living either in the country I'm trying to escape (in which attempting to emigrate could possibly be a crime), or in a state of legal limbo, illegally or semi-legally in some other country. Still, there was a period of time in which we were concerned I would not be able to immigrate after all, due to a misunderstanding about the tenure of my student visa. And during that time period, Tim B. was actually denied re-entrance to the US, seperating him from his wife and daughter until she could raise the money to join him in Canada. Another gent we met last year was selling all his possessions because his swedish wife failed to register her change of address when they fled from Katrina, and was subsequently deported. And we're the 'desirable' immigrants. (a term and idea that makes me frankly want to spit, as though I'm in any conceivable way better than Rosa, the nanny down the street).


Kate said...

btw...from the Summa:
"I answer that, Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose, Objection 3 says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals: "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery."

Just another mad Catholic said...


As a UK reader I can tell you that illegal immigrants are a big problem here in the UK (although the government is the main problem), the 'human rights' leglislation we have means(in effect) that they must be given priority for social services housing, health ect over the native population and of course we must accoomdate their (false) religons whilst any expression of our True Faith is scorned as being 'bigoted'.

What really gets my goat is (a) the benefits our quasi socialist government accords them and (b) the fact that we accept immigrants despite the fact that under UN law genuine asylum applicants must apply for asylum in the first safe country they come to, the only thing that slightly cheers me up is that Germany has an even bigger problem

Kate said...

The problem with your initial argument is that you speak as though immigration activists want unfettered immigration - when all they ask is rational immigration laws. Which we don't have. The reason I tell my story to thick-headed anti-immigrant conservatives is because most anti-immigrant sentiment comes from people who have no idea whatsoever what it takes to immigrate legally - and those obstacles are precisely what leads to illegal immigration. Further restricting legal immmigration would only increase the press of illegal immigrants - it would be removing what little safety valve there is.

And I maintain that Aquinas' argument vis a vis theft when starving applies to refugees.

As to what monarchical states may or may not have done regarding immigration - to my knowledge, regardless of what decrees were handed down, restricted and regulated immigration is a modern innovation. While Monarchs occasionally attempted to block specific groups from entering their kingdoms, few had the resources at any point to enforce this. Keeping armies out is one thing, keeping small family groups out is another. Even Jews moved from country to country despite draconian anti-Jewish laws - which, I point out, were supported at times by many bishops and more than a couple popes. We don't pretend that it would then, following that example, be just to now refuse Jews entry just because it was done in the past.

In a pre-bureaucratic age, anyone with a grievance or petition had someone - a last power - they could appeal to. Modern nations generally speaking have no such thing, especially when it comes to seeking refuge. There are few things as heartless, impersonal, and amoral than a pile of forms as answer to a desperate plea.

You haven't convinced me that you actually know what you're talking about in this case - that you've read any thoughtful analysis of the relationship between legal and illegal immigration, or that you've even given a great deal of thought and prayer to what the Church has written on the topic. I look forward to reading more commentary on the topic at a later date when you've had a chance to do so.

Boniface said...


The fact that so many people are against immigration here - and the fact that immigration laws are so strict - taken together should give you a clue that Americans don't really want immigrants here, and that has to count for something.

And we're not talking about small families, but millions of persons - 33 million here illegally, most from Mexico. That's way bigger than any invading army in history.

Kate said...

Phillip, the laws are not strict, they are contradictory and inane.

Mostly what the state of immigration law tells me, combined with anti-immigrant hysteria, is that there are some very powerful lobbies that profit from exploiting illegal labor - and that they are very skilled at exploiting xenophobia in order to maintain the status quo.

I don't actually believe Americans dislike immigration. When it comes right down to it, there aren't that many people who have an actual problem with the guy running the taqueria the next block over. What gets Americans worked up is the bogeyman of the simultaneously hostile, illiterate, lazy and exploitative immigrant. Which the majority of that 33 million obviously are not, or California and Texas would not be the economic powerhouses they are. (as measured by gdp: )

And why is it that conservatives love to hate on low birth rates and the effects of a declining populace on the economy, and then turn around and claim that the population boost immigrants give is unneeded and unwanted?

I'm still waiting for an argument that doesn't come down to 'but we don't want them'. Considering that God's chosen people wandered for, oh, most of their history, I'm pretty confident that God doesn't look too kindly at people who would turn their back at the stranger at their door out of discomfort and willfulness.

haskovec said...

Isn't the real problem here the fact that all countries are welfare states. If the US wasn't busy taxing everyone to death and giving their money away to others (IE we had a system of Subsidiarity and charity was left to the churches) I would see no issues with having an Open border. And for the record I am married to a Mexican National, but she has immigrated here legally as well.

haskovec said...


I completely feel you pain, yeah I think we spent about $3000 in all getting my wife her residency. I didn't find it difficult though just annoying and bureaucratic. It looks like it is about $650 to file the N-400 if you want to get nationalized. My wife is considering it now.

Boniface said...


NObody denies that those who have are obliged to help those who have not - that is not in dispute. So how about we give some aid, food, clothing, resources to these people AND THEN SEND THEM BACK HOME? Why does the obligation to help entail letting them live here?

BY the way, lets not forget that they broke the law to get in here, and the CCC says that obeying the law is their fundamental duty. That makes illegal aliens CRIMINALS.

Kate said...

America is already populated by pagans.

And its a little much to compare us to the Chosen People, isn't it? God save us from arrogance!

The problem with knee jerk anti-immigrant reactions is that your first thought on reading that article you cited was "how dare these refugees seek refuge illegally - kick em' out!!" rather than, "wow, that must be a pretty extreme situation to make people live like that. what would it take to drive me to that extreme? i wonder what i can do to prevent this sort of situation in the future by meeting the needs of people like this?"

But go for it, the desperate people of the world are used to having millstones tied around their necks. Use this as fuel to write your lawmakers and demand we split up families, shoot people at the border, create quotas and further restrict legal immigration so that the pressure on the southern border becomes like a steam boiler with no pressure valve. See how that works for you.

Hascovec - the immigration hassles were mostly just hassles for me, since if I'd been denied for some reason we could have gone back up to Canada, as friends of ours did. It was moving to a state which has experienced a large influx of immigrants recently legal and illegal - who have been targets in numerous ways, from exploitative employer practices to simple prejudice - that really stirs my heart in this area. And I tend to think God gave me a heart so I could use it. KWIM? Just because 'social justice' is often manipulated and misused doesn't mean that we as people of faith have a license to harden our hearts.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Mexico for a number of years. Mexico has a lot of resouces but has (had when I was there) a very corrupt government which hurts the population.

It is said that when Mexicans come to the US (either illegally or legally) their cost of living goes up by 900%. Their pay only goes up by about 200%. Gov't. programs fill in the gap. I have seen some poverty in Mexico, but most people I talk to just want to go to America. They are not necessarily being persecuted. They have heard of the "streets paved of gold" stories and want in on the action. I had some friends who tried to get into the US legally and were frustrated by a). their own government's demands on their ability to get in (they have to join the military for two years and own land) and b) the illegals cutting in line, making it even harder for those who want to abide by the law.

I also have a friend who lives on the Texas border who has a ranch and farms. He loses about 40% of his crops and 25% of his cattle to illegals coming across and stealing them.

Illegal immigration is wrong and Kate can't tell me any different.

Suzanne from Oklahoma

CO said...

Sorry for the late comment.

The heart of the matter is the ownership of property, not immigration.

I am perfectly happy and willing to assist particular immigrants of my choice with my property.

I am equally unhappy that Boniface's property is stolen (taxed) to support immigrants without his consent.

Theft is not charity. Considering the implications is an exercise left to the reader.