Immigration, Justice, and the Common Good

In my last post I discussed the concept of different forms of justice as well as the common good. I recently read an excellent piece from Bishop Conley, the Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, on the issue of immigration that can help to further elucidate these concepts. Bishop Conley writes:

Certainly, entering a country illegally is a crime. The government has an obligation to uphold the rule of law, and to punish those who commit crimes. But the crime of illegal immigration must be considered in light of other factors: the rights of parents to provide for their children, the poverty and danger families face around the globe, and the injustice of American laws and policies governing immigration in the first place. Many immigrants who have been exiled by the circumstances of their homelands want to follow the law, but our broken system makes that impossible. The consequences of illegal immigration should be determined in light of the sovereignty of the family, and the inhumanity of separating children, often US citizens, from their parents.

No doubt the issues of immigration are complex, and there are no shortage of opinions on how we as a nation are to solve them. Many approach the question from the standpoint of security. Others insist on looking at it through an economic lens. Still others insist on the human dignity of immigrants. In reality, all of these approaches are necessary voices in the conversation. How might the Church’s insights about justice and the common good help us to navigate what is clearly a complex issue?

First it is important to determine the state of the question. The reasons why a person or family may choose to immigrate to the United States are many. Some (especially those in Latin America) seek to escape violence of their native lands. Others come seeking economic opportunity. Still others see the United States as a place where they can raise their families and educate their children. The immigration system as it stands tends to “turn a blind eye” to those who choose to enter the country “outside of the normal means;” and there are numerous reasons for this.

Businesses are able to use undocumented migrant labor in order to lower their costs. This is especially true of the agriculture and construction industries. It raises companies’ bottom lines, allowing them to achieve greater profits. The government also benefits because it collects higher taxes (both in the form of corporate and income taxes). There is an unacknowledged “wink-wink” going on: society allows people to continue entering by not really enforcing our national borders. The government looks the other way when migrants provide falsified documents even when they pay social security, medicare, and taxes. It keeps migrants’ money with relatively few obligations to those migrants (at least when compared with a documented migrant). Thus it seems individuals, business, and government all acknowledge (at least implicitly) the benefits of the status quo of the immigration system. It should also be acknowledged that migrants do realize some benefits as well, otherwise why would they continue to come? Many, for example, send money home to family in their native countries.

Yet despite all of this, one must ask the question: How does the immigration system as it stands do when it comes to the administration of justice? Migrants are human beings – created in the image and likeness of God. They cannot be reduced to capital, or anything less than what they truly are: children of our Heavenly Father. As a result migrants have certain fundamental rights, granted not by any human government, but by the mere fact that they possess the human nature. In this situation, justice is the means by which we as a people render to migrants that which is due to them: fair wages, the opportunities to raise their families in environments free from violence, etc.

The big question that underlies the immigration question is: how does one bring justice about? Do the above claims need to be circumscribed within the framework of the common good of the nation? Of course. It is acceptable for people of goodwill to disagree on the answers to this question, but the question itself presumes our recognition that those things which are due to migrants by virtue of the fact that they are human beings are being deprived from them. In other words: there must be a recognition that individuals, corporations, and society as a whole take advantage of the presence of undocumented migrants. To “kick them out” because their presence is suddenly politically inconvenient does not solve the problem: it only furthers the injustice.

We can lose sight of the fact that contentious issues in the public sphere involve people. Political solutions to such issues must serve the common good of all people whether they are citizens or undocumented, because whether you like it or not, migrants are crucial strands in the fabric that is our society. Indeed, the Church adds a lot to this conversation. She helps to remind us of the fact that the ultimate goal of human political institutions is human flourishing, and that justice is a prerequisite for if that goal is ever to be truly realized.