The Personalist Project

Katie addressed immigration just the other day, and I wrote about it here last year.  There’s plenty more to say, though.  So much, in fact, that it’s worth mentioning some things I won’t be addressing here:

  • I won’t be proposing an immigration policy.
  • I won’t be evaluating the states of the souls of politicians who vote on immigration policy, parents who send unaccompanied minors across borders, adults who cross borders illegally, or US citizens who express ideas on the subject. 

At least I’ll try to avoid both.  I’m certainly not qualified to do either. What I would like is to identify a few avoidable impediments to the conversation.

Usually one side talks about illegal aliens (or, less grammatically, just illegals) and the other side calls them undocumented immigrants.  Neither is helpful: illegal modifies actions, not persons. And though alien, on its face, just means stranger or foreigner, it at least hints at repulsive and hostile space creature to most people today.

To call them undocumented is true as far as it goes, but the point is not the lack of documents but the law-breaking that resulted in their absence.

How can we stop talking past each other? I propose that, for one thing, we may as well go ahead and say refugees or invaders. Nearly everything one side says makes sense if they’re refugees.  Nearly everything the other side says makes sense if they’re invaders.

In some cases refugees seems accurate: children fleeing violence or hunger or human trafficking, conditions so bad that a nightmarish, life-threatening journey culminating in an uncertain reception looks preferable.  And in other cases, “invaders” is not a stretch at all.  Terrorists and exporters of gang warfare and drug addiction do belong in a different category.  To block their entry, even if their own life stories are tragic, too, is an act of reasonable self-defense.

There’s something else that’s impeding straight talk: a false either/or that makes conversation impossible. Either politicians are manipulating events behind the scenes, or these children are innocent victims of forces beyond their control. Both are obviously true. If we discern political machinations, that doesn’t mean we’re wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who believe one omnipotent, invisible puppeteer is micromanaging every wrinkle of the narrative. And if we want to see innocent children cared for, that doesn’t mean we’re pro-terrorism, gang warfare, and national destruction.

People who would otherwise follow their best instincts and advocate treating refugees as human beings hesitate, because that, as they see it, would be to fall into the trap laid by their political opponents. 

The politicians pit us all against each other. Some of them profess compassion for unaccompanied minors, but the only solution they propose is “Go back where you came from.”  Other politicians, who profess compassion just as earnestly, manufacture a crisis, or at least a dramatic escalation of one, which multiplies the suffering of the ones for whom they cry their crocodile tears.  Then they point to the suffering children as evidence that their preferred policy must be instituted immediately, laws be damned.  It’s a little like the terrorists of Hamas who use children as human shields and then display photos of their corpses to incite hatred of the soldiers they goaded into attacking.

Do we lack the will to safeguard the wellbeing of both the victims and the citizens?  It’s hard to tell, because it’s hard to find anybody of influence who’s trying to do both. Everybody ratchets up the rhetoric. We’re led to believe there’s no option but to send them immediately back to the conditions they’re fleeing or else “dump” them without adequate health screening or even advance notice into schools already struggling to provide marginal safety and literacy.

Parents of public-school kids in inner city Chicago, who have enough problems already, are led to believe that humanity to the stranger and sojourner means exposing their own children to tuberculosis. And people who want to help the unaccompanied minors are led to believe that even providing some kind of emergency assistance entails abandoning our country to such lawless chaos that pretty soon it'll be in no condition to serve as a safe harbor for anyone.

Years of living abroad have convinced me that American can-do ingenuity is not a myth. If we devoted the energy and imagination we’re renowned for to finding a solution somewhere between “Go back where you came from” and surrendering to anarchy, we could come up with something better.

Comments (26)

Gary Gibson

#1, Jul 21, 2014 6:52am

Thoughtful, well written, and very reasonable, Devra.  I am so impressed with you as a writer, wife, and mother.  Your family of origin is amazing.  And you & Max have a wonderful family as well.  We are blessed to know you all!  Thanks again for your anointed writing!


Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 21, 2014 9:14am

I sort of like the term "illegals," despite its grammatical dubiousness.  "Aliens" sounds ugly. "Immigrants" neglects the crucial distinction between those who have gone through the onerous legal process and those who haven't. "Undocumented workers" is a lying euphemism, especially considering that in some places, like New York, they have documents, like driver's licenses, and aren't necessarily working.

I don't care for "refugees" or "invaders" either, really, because while one or the other may characterize individuals among them, considering the problem as a social problem, both are true. Many of these children are desperate refugees, and our country is undergoing an invasion, fomented by politicians and power-brokers who don't care about the human lives involved.

Devra Torres

#3, Jul 21, 2014 9:17am

Gary, thank you so much for your kind words! This is a hard subject to write about--people I respect are on both sides, and the politicians are always ready to whisper in our ears, "Let's you and him fight!"  Then the pawns--the unaccompanied children and other people who happened to be born into chaos and danger--end up getting treated like the villians.

Devra Torres

#4, Jul 21, 2014 9:39am

I don't know about "invaders"--it seems natural to use it to describe an invading army.  To use it to describe people entering the country illegally seems metaphorical.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jul 21, 2014 9:41am

Here's another element I may try to develop in a separate post:

Consider the Statue of Liberty: In her hand is the law. In the American tradition, liberty is linked to law.

"Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

Without law, there can be no liberty. 

Here are two other things that can't be separated: Charity and moral agency. If it's imposed, it's not charity. If it's confiscated it's not generosity.

In the poem inscribed at the statue's base:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore..."

America is offering refuge. This is possible because we are a self-governing nation of laws.

When the aim of the politicians is to erode law and erode self-goverance though, our ability to offer refuge and charity to the stranger is destroyed.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 21, 2014 9:44am

Note, though, that I didn't say "invaders", I said "invasion". That was deliberate.

When I say invasion my moral attention is not on the individuals or their motives in coming. It's on the social and political problem of the breakdown of order in our society.

Devra Torres

#7, Jul 21, 2014 9:53am

That makes sense.  And yes, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole situation is that throwing the law aside is conflated with being charitable.  The slide into lawlessness that we've seen under the politicians currently in charge, especially, can only end in America becoming a place of more chaos and danger itself, unable to offer refuge to anybody.  I see that.  But I think we lack the will, not the ability, to do things like ascertain who qualifies for genuine refugee status and who doesn't, or to allow for more work visas for unskilled labor so that people don't perceive that the choice is between breaking our laws and raising their families in life-threatening conditions.  

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jul 21, 2014 9:58am

Here is something that has happened to me more than once (I come from a dysfunctional family with boundary issues):

Someone comes into my space and takes something that belongs to me. I say, "Hey! That's mine!" The one taking responds with lectures on the Christian call to generosity and the problem of my selfishness.

I see an analogy in the way many Catholics (including Cardinal Dolan) are reviling those who justly resisting the disregard for their autonomy and moral agency. 

Devra Torres

#9, Jul 21, 2014 11:06am

I see the analogy.  To the extent that it's a matter of simple injustice to cross the border illegally, it makes sense.  

I guess I need to revisit what "universal destination of goods" means, exactly.  I know it doesn't mean "no private property." And people have brought up the point about how a hungry man stealing a piece of bread from a bakery is not really stealing at all.  So we could talk about how that does and doesn't apply here.  There's also the question of what is our duty as American citizens and what is our duty as Christians, and how sharp a distinction we do or don't want to make between the two.  Welcoming the stranger really is central to Christianity, and it was already central to Judaism before that.  That doesn't mean we throw laws out the window, or welcome all strangers immediately and indiscriminately, but it means something.

Well, I trust that's enough to muddy up the waters for now!

Rhett Segall

#10, Jul 21, 2014 11:13am

Finding the best word is important. E. g., inclusive language can help a person avoid a patriarchal mind set. In the document “Strangers No Longer”, already referred to in these exchanges, the terms refugee and asylum seekers are used so I’ll stick with them.

By the way, the document is very clarifying and balanced in presenting the principles applicable to the border crisis.

I would also refer to Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. Note the bursting through of social barriers by the Samaritan: this person needs help that I can give. Second, note that he elicits help from the Inn keeper. Thirdly, note that he doesn’t neglect personal obligations-he continues on his journey.

Today’s New York Times does give examples of the leadership needed in this crisis. Governor O’Malley of Maryland says “It is contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death.” And Mayor Stephanie Miner of Syracuse wrote to President Obama offering shelter in her city for the children.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 21, 2014 11:26am

Governor O'Malley also refused the federal government's attempt to house the assylum-seekers in his state. And he did it in the ugliest way possible, viz. by suggesting that they wouldn't be safe, because conservatives in his state are so racist and xenophobic that they might attack. Talk is cheap.

And, again, Rhett, it seems to me that you are addressing the morality of only one side of the issue, the side where we already have agreement. No one here is suggesting that these people should just be "sent back." We all agree that they are persons who deserve love and respect, who need care and attention.

Chris Ramsey

#12, Jul 21, 2014 5:45pm

I haven't commented on this site in a long time, but something caught my eye and I couldn't resist.  Devra made a statement I've heard and seen before - "a hungry man stealing a piece of bread from a bakery is not really stealing at all" - and this rings false to me.  I'm sure you're aware of the term "justifiable homicide".  The point I'm trying to make is that, though it may indeed be justified (self-defence, for example), it's still homicide.  Is there such a thing as "justifiable theft" when circumstances are desperate?  I would say yes, but I can understand that someone else may be skeptical.

With regard to immigration, are we saying "a desperate person entering our country illiegally for work, safety, security, healthcare, education (this list could go on and on) is not really breaking the law"?  Devra, I apologize if I'm taking your point too far!

I believe that what's happening on our southern border is criminal, but the "illegal immigrants" (which is what they are) are not the actual criminals (especially the unaccompanied minors).  I grew up in Brownsville TX and I can't remember anything like the current situation.  

Devra Torres

#13, Jul 21, 2014 8:04pm

Chris, welcome, and it's an interesting question. I didn't mean there was a clear parallel, just thinking out loud about how it might apply to the case of immigration.  I think the case of the hungry man and the bread, according to Catholic teaching, is meant to apply to cases of urgent and imminent need, when there's no other possible way to avoid starvation.  I think in that case it would be not stealing at all, rather than justified theft.

In the case of self-defense, it's not that it's still homicide, but justified homicide; rather, it's not murder at all, but justified homicide.  Of course it's some kind of homicide: that's just the meaning of the word.  In the case of theft, it's part of the definition that you're taking something to which you have no right--and that's what's in question, whether anyone has a right to withhold food from a starving man.  But it's a very narrowly defined kind of case--that is, if I'm remembering it right.

I would never say that people entering the country illegally are not breaking the civil law--of course they are.  

Devra Torres

#14, Jul 21, 2014 8:12pm

Whether they're breaking the moral law could depend on whether the particular law is just, whether they know it's in force, whether there's any other way to secure their or their famiy's survival, and so on.  I'm not saying there's a simple parallel between immigrants coming from a bad situation and a starving man taking the bread.

I do suspect we should all take more seriously uncomfortable notions like the universal destination of goods and teachings like "let him who has two coats give to him who has none."  They're easy to explain away.

Excuse me, I've been talking about all this in the context of Catholic teaching, Chris, and I don't know if you're Catholic.  Also, neither immigration nor Catholic social teaching are areas of expertise for me (at all!); I'm just sorting out ideas in my mind.

Chris Ramsey

#15, Jul 21, 2014 11:16pm

I'm Catholic - passionately!  I was recently asked to chair a "Social Justice" committee in my parish (in Rochester NY - an interesting place to say the least) but I fear I'm much too conservative for this area.  At heart I'm a Texan (Houston, Brownsville, College Station)  and New York is hard to fathom (even after 22 years).  Let's just say it's hard to relate to other "Catholics" in my neck of the woods.  They have very strong feelings about immigration (along with many other topics), but no clue when it comes to the reality.

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Jul 22, 2014 3:00pm

Chris, I suppose it's too late to serve, but here's a piece I wrote a year ago contrasting the Catholic notion of social justice and the leftist notion, which are sadly often conflated.

Much more work needs to be done in this area, imo.

Chris Ramsey

#17, Jul 23, 2014 10:03am


Not too late at all, and I appreciate you pointing this out to me.  I agree with you that more work needs to be done in this area and I'm hopeful because the truth will prevail.  I struggle with semantics sometimes - why does the term "justice" require modification with qualifiers like "social" or "economic"? - but that horse has already left the barn.

Thanks again!

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Jul 23, 2014 10:08am

It seems to me a matter of precision. Social justice is a particular sphere of justice, just as sexual morality is a particular sphere of morality. It is justice in the arrangement of society, justice between segments of society.

Further, social justice is a new category of justice, in the sense that it emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution. Likewise, theology of the body is a new field of theological exploration.

I think conservatives like us have a tendency to react against the term because we're so used to its being misused by the left.

David Madeley

#19, Jul 24, 2014 8:38am

This issue has come up a lot in Britain recently due to the enlargement of the EU and the rise of the UK Independence Party. Most of this discussion has been about legal immigration, but I hope it's relevant.

I feel there's a distinction to be made between "you're not welcome here" and "we'd rather you go to another city". Like it or not, a spike in immigrant population in a particular area puts a strain on the public services of that area, which are commissioned based on expectations about future population. I admire the spirit of those who would offer their floor to an immigrant family, but when we start talking about school places, hospital beds, or public transport, it gets more complex - these things take time, new teachers have to be trained, schools need to be enlarged. In short the local population has a choice between putting up with over-subscribed services, designed for a lower population, or borrowing money to boost existing services. So it seems fair that the effect of immigration should be spread as evenly accross the country as possible. At the moment it seems big port cities are bearing too heavy a burden.

Rhett Segall

#20, Jul 24, 2014 9:45am


I think your assesment is fair.

I think it is important that government is alert to these necessities ahead of time. This foresight should include educating one's nation to its responsibility to share its goods with those in need. The Biblical story of Joseph's prudent husbandry of Egypt's goods is most applical here.

 Do you remember Tolstoys story "How much land does a man need?" I think the principle behind that story, i. e. we must shape our priorities in  light of death, is applicaple here too. How much do we really need in this statu viae? For the Christian death is a passage not a termination.



David Madeley

#21, Jul 25, 2014 11:20am

Shalom Rhett. Thanks for the recommendation. I've not read the story but I'm happy to admit we probably need fewer things and less space than we think we do. At the same time, we do make promises to other people based on what we think we need and what we think they need - those are probably over-estimates, but at the point in time when we've made a promise, people are going to feel let down if it isn't seen through. Okay, if you go too far down that road, you end up with a Salome/Herod scenario - she wants something totally unreasonable, but he's sworn an oath to her and that's all that matters. But - if parents have sent their kids to a school expecting an all english-speaking environment, and suddenly the area becomes popular with immigrants from eastern europe, who are still learning the language, and as a result the teachers have to devote the lion's share of class time to bringing the kids up to scratch, I'm happy saying that's unfair on the parents. They sent their kids to school based on a set of reasonable expecations which haven't been met.

God bless,


Devra Torres

#22, Jul 25, 2014 1:01pm

David, that's a fair point, about the distinction between saying "you're not welcome here" and wishing to spread the burden of extra obligations.  That's exactly the kind of distinction, in fact, that could help the conversation be more fruitful.  The impression you usually get is, on one side, people who generously want to allow poor children to share in our educational and medical resources and, on the other, the "go back where you came from" crowd.  The fact that our birth rate in America (and so much of the West) is so unnaturally low makes it especially problematic to talk as if there's just not enough of anything to go around.  Following that assumption to its logical conclusion, we'd end up telling all our own "extra" unborn children "you're not welcome here" and "go back where you came from," too.  And when we consider how wasteful we, at least in America, typically are with the riches we have, the position becomes even more distasteful.  It's said (and it sounds plausible) that the typical American family ends up throwing out 40% of their groceries each week, either because we leave them on the plate or let them go bad.

Devra Torres

#23, Jul 25, 2014 1:58pm

On the other hand, I realize I'm arguing agaisnt a straw man here, or at least against people other than the ones in this conversation.  No one here is saying simply "Go back where you came from," nor are any of us implying that there's an absolute shortage of goods and services to go around.  As Katie points out, we still need to address the injustice of law-abiding, taxpaying citizens being accursed of ungenerosity for resisting the burden imposed by those who disregard and break the law.  

Also, of course, the ad-hoc lawlessness of the way this is being addressed can only make our country more like the chaotic and dangerous ones that people are fleeing.  This is a (presumably) unintended consequence of actions taken in the name of compassion, and the last thing the world needs is more well-intended policies which actually make things worse for their intended beneficiaries and everybody else.  

I'm still wondering whether we lack the will or the ability to distinguish between innocent people who would qualify as refugees and people who are obviously gang members or drug dealers or terrorists. 

Devra Torres

#24, Jul 25, 2014 2:02pm

I do realize it's not that simple--that there are, for example, predators who are getting themselves appointed guardians of children so that they themselves will be allowed to stay.  But when you see pictures of toddlers sleeping on the floor of detention centers posted by one side and pictures of malicious-looing older teenagers covered in gang tatoos posted by the other, you wonder whether we can't do better than an all-or-nothing approach.

Devra Torres

#25, Jul 25, 2014 2:12pm

Rhett, I have read the Tolstoy story--it's a good one.  My husband actually used to use it on his business ethics class!  It's about how a good man, given the opportunity to own as much land as he can walk around in a day, finds himself "needing" more and more, doesn't end well.  I urge everyone to read Tolstoy, who of course tells it better.

The government is so unwieldy and corrupt and beholden to special interests that it will never act like Joseph in Egypt, I don't think.  I don't know that it's capable of handling wealth well enough to stockpile for those in need, or for our own future necessities.  When it does help those in need, it does so with fictional money, or money borrowed from our great grandchildren, as far as I understand.

What we as individuals can do is also an important question.  There are two aspects: being detached from what we do have, and realizing that giving to those in need is an obligation, not something beyond the call of duty. Pope Francis has been "convicting" me (as the Protestants say) on these two points lately.

David Madeley

#26, Jul 26, 2014 9:29am

Thanks for the response, Devra. It's true that western countries are going to struggle to plead poverty, certainly in the case of food, of which I agree we throw too much away. What I would say is that it's possible to be rich in certain commodities and poor in others.

I would say most wealthy westerners are time poor and energy poor. There are personal choices that might make that easier, but if the working culture is a 50 hour week in one's profession, it takes a strong personality to resist that. These are the people on whom the responsibility falls to help the poor materially, but they are simply exhausted. Paradoxically, it's the more conscientious among them, who might be inclined to do more with the right encouragement, who most resent the implication that they aren't doing enough. Reaching them with the right narrative is a huge challenge.

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