The Personalist Project

The recent “Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided” conference began with Ave Maria Radio’s Al Kresta urging us laypeople to dig in and relish our vocation to “intentional discipleship.” It also included William B. May’s refreshing, child-centric approach to the marriage wars.  And it took up immigration.  Which brings us (one day late) to…


One of These Things is Not Like the Others?

I was initially startled to see immigration included in a conference whose other themes were marriage, life, and religious freedom.  It’s a hot-button political topic—but what does it have to do with Catholic witness?  It’s not about life, or family, or faith—is it?

In fact, it overlaps with all of these, as well as with economic policy, human dignity, foreign relations, justice, charity, measures of the value of the person, and the proper sphere of government.  And it's an issue of faith, at least de facto: 60 to 70% of today's immigrants are Catholic.   The Church is the second institution (after the government) that interacts with them.

On the other hand, immigration policy is not as clear-cut and non-negotiable as abortion, marriage, and freedom of religion.  It’s a prudential matter. Many political conservatives are unequivocally in favor of life, marriage, and religious freedom, but they believe that the bishops’ take on immigration is wrongheaded—an unfortunate  left-wing reflex that has no place among concerns for life, liberty, and the family.


Where Does Immigration Fit, Then?

Of course, neither the Church nor personalist philosophy has a lot of use for political labels, and we should all beware of assuming a simplistic split between “social conservative” and “social justice” Catholics.

Immigration doesn’t really lend itself to the one-dimensional approaches to be found on both sides.  Stereotypes abound.  No doubt many immigrants fall somewhere in between the portrait of the noble, hardworking  patriarchs and matriarchs who've sacrificed everything for a better life for their family,

and the caricature of the indolent, opportunistic freeloaders who want nothing more than to clog up their host country's emergency rooms and state universities.  

At one extreme, some speak as if the line between legality and illegality were irrelevant; at the other, people seem to equate failure to have one's papers in order with crimes of violence and terrorism.


A Point of Departure

Here’s a starting point on which I hope we can all agree, as expressed by Al Kresta: 

Borders are important but secondary to the well-being of persons.  Borders are for persons, not persons for borders.

This is not tantamount to “Amnesty now!”  Concern for persons does mean protecting the immigrant from exploitation.  It could mean opposing, for instance, a law that mandated priests hearing the confessions only of legal residents.

But it also embraces concern for the citizens whose physical safety or ability to support their own families is threatened by those who aren’t legal residents.  It includes, too, respecting the rights of those who do endure the headaches of attaining legal status.

And borders are important, because the rule of law, and thus the common good, are important.   Concern for human dignity doesn’t require the chaos and insecurity of out-of-control borders.



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

These words have never been scrubbed off the Statue of Liberty, but they hardly express the current state of immigration policy, or the sentiments of much of the populace.  Some would be perfectly content to let the "wretched refuse" stay right where it is, and our system for evaluating prospective immigrants has given rise to plenty of satire:

Kevin Appleby, the Bishops' spokesman at the conference, argued, for example, against assigning an engineer ten points and the child of immigrants two.  A nation needs some standard of evaluation, if only to protect itself from enemies and criminals, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how a system that rates human beings according to economic and educational status could involve serious moral blind spots.


 Assimilation Dilemmas

Many draw a sharp distinction between immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and more recent ones.  The former worked tirelessly, assimilated, learned the language, and became strikingly patriotic.  My great-grandfather went from selling housewares off a pushcart in the Bronx

 to establishing a hardware store that supported the family for generations.  My mother-in-law arrived from El Salvador at age 26, took a job as a hat check girl in a San Francisco hotel,

and then logged countless hours as an accountant, eventually sending her children to Harvard and Yale.  People from this generation have little patience for anyone who tries to tell them that America is anything but the greatest country in the world. 

Immigrants today arrive in a nation with much less use for patriotism, keener appreciation of their own native cultures, growing acceptance of an entitlement mentality, and numerous bureaucratic and ideological barriers to succeeding by dint of sheer hard work.  If they remain attached to their cultures and value the health and educational benefits offered them, you could say that's because they are assimilating to current American culture, not contaminating it.


Demographics and other Life Matters

Leaving aside the question of legality, some speak as if our country simply cannot afford to welcome more inhabitants. Were it not for immigrants, though, our underpopulation problem would be much more acute and conspicuous.  If we had a normal birthrate, we’d have a much larger and younger population than we do. Sheer numbers are not the problem.

Others point to the success of pro-abortion politicians in courting immigrants and their votes.  They present this as evidence of harm caused by immigration  But it’s also evidence of the need to build on the pro-life and pro-family culture than is still strong in many Latin American migrants--

the need to stop conveying the message that the advocates of the unborn and the family view them as a threat.


Further Resources

For those interested in something more than the first impressions of a philosophically inclined housewife, I’ll pass on some resources offered at the conference.  Kevin Appleby, the USCCB’s Director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, recommends the Bishops’ website.  Fr. Robert Sirico’s Acton Institute addresses the issue, too, and he recommends on the bettering of immigrants’ home countries, and the consequences of trade policies and foreign aid.

Looking forward to your comments!  Please let me know if there's something I'm not seeing.

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Comments (16)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Feb 2, 2013 8:16pm

Take #4 rings especially true with me, Devra.  I practically break out in hives when I hear people talking about how we need to create an immigration policy that brings in "highly skilled workers" and keeps out the "unskilled."

I mean, way to express that we value persons by their productivity.

Devra Torres

#2, Feb 3, 2013 4:10pm

That was what struck me most, too--at least, as most relevant to personalism.  It feeds into the whole "makers vs. takers" mindset: taking the grain of truth that work lends dignity, that the person actualizes himself through work, and then twisting it until you come out with the idea that highly skilled workers are more valuable human beings.

Gary Gibson

#3, Feb 7, 2013 3:18am


I really enjoyed your thoughts.  I was raised in the Kennedy Kingdom of Massachusetts and followed the Democrat Party religiously (as most Massachusetts Cathoilcs do), but 1973 changed all that (Roe v Wade).  I was part of the Reagan Revolution and Peter Kreeft was one of my guides . . .  I missed the Kresta conference but have enjoyed hearing about the thoughtful and engaging talks . . .  thank you for your insights and commentary!


#4, Feb 7, 2013 4:24am

After the fall of cummunism in Central and Eastern Europe, and in spite of concern in Western Europe because of the huge GDP and income per capity gap, the European Union has tried and continues to try to absorb and integrate as many of these ex-Warsaw Pact Countries as possible, including the adoption of the common currency of the €.

One of the ideas behind it was that this would deter many would-be immigrants to move westwards, because they would automatically become part of the rich West without having to leave their homes and homelands. And it is a fact that the removal of the borders has not created any form of migration stream. The EU is not a country, but the borders between the Member States are just like the borders between the US States, without any form of control.

Food for thought to consider something similar between the US and Mexico, e.g.?

Sam Roeble

#5, Feb 7, 2013 8:18am

Sapperdepitjes, Feb. 7 at 5:24am

Food for thought to consider something similar between the US and Mexico, e.g.?

 In a way, NAFTA already established such a relationship economically.  That is to say, that the fair trade that once existed between the two countries in the 80s is now free trade (no tarriffs).  Yes, the currency is different, but that's fortunate for the US--similar to Britain's relationship with the EU. 

Anyway,my immigration conclusion is as follows: immigration from Mexico to the US will continue (both legal and illegal) because like Britain, the US wants to captialize on free trade with Mexico w/o common currency.  This will keep the dollar, like the pound, higher in value than the peso,etc.

  A final word on free trade vs. fair trade:  Although free trade sounds nice, it's not exactly more fair than fair trade.  NAFTA actually put Mexico at a disadvantage with the US.  Why?  Because formerly, tarriffs helped cover the cost of trading goods to resource rich US for Mexico--putting US and Mexico on level grounds.  Free trade did away with tarriffs, causing Mexicans to think, "if I have to pay to sell goods to US, why not live there and sell w/o paying?"

Devra Torres

#6, Feb 7, 2013 8:57am

Gary, thank you so much for joining us and, yes, you can't do better than Kreeft!  The conference was outstanding--I think I'll link to the CD's that have been made of it.  

Sapperdepitjes, yes, that's a very interesting parallel--different in many respects, of course, and I don't feel at all qualified to comment on specific policy proposals. But I remember when the Wall fell, there was rejoicing at the freedom of the Eastern Bloc countries and, on the other hand, there was reluctance in some quarters to welcome them for fear they would drag down the other countries' economies. At least, that was my impression as a young student.  It struck me as very sad,  

Devra Torres

#7, Feb 7, 2013 9:04am

Samwise, I like your name!  One thing I did glean from the conference is that a crucial aspect of the whole mess is to find ways to strengthen the economies of the immigrants' countries of origin, so that large numbers of people would no longer feel forced to leave in the first place.  Fr. Sirico seemed to think that the right trade policies would be a more effective way to do this than foreign aid, which can end up in "the coffers of the dictatos."  I will leave it to people more versed in economy than myself (just about everybody) to work out the details.  It seems reasonable to me, although sometimes the arguments I hear against foreign aid seem to boil down to something that sounds nationalistic and anti-Christian.  (I'm not at all accusing Fr. Sirico of anything like that--thinking more of callers on talk radio shows that I listen to with one ear while doing the laundry).


#8, Feb 7, 2013 12:26pm

The European integration is much much more than just an economic collaboration. It's a slow but steady process of sovereignty transfer. So I'm getting this impression that, as times goes by, I'm less and less a Belgian and more and more a European. Surely living in Spain, speaking many languages and traveling extensively do reinforce this feeling.

But actually, underneath there is also this feeling of: why stop at Europe? It's a global world now! Why have different countries and currencies anyway? Aren't we humans all a big family, brothers and sisters, children of the same Father?

Sam Roeble

#9, Feb 7, 2013 2:59pm

certainly we are.  But look at the geography of Europe vs the Americas or Africa?  I'm talking about raw materials, resources, etc.  They are all very different.  In addition to languages, culture, and governments--as you said above.

Trade of goods works well because of competition--capitalism, though faulty and subject to greed--is the best economic system.  So, my point about Mexico and US was that Mexico benefitted from fair trade and tarrifs, because they cannot match the raw materials that US has. 

Likewise, England cannot produce olive oil and must depend on Italy,etc...

In conclusion, National differences/boundaries aide the global economy because they increase competition.  But I warned against free trade taking advantage of poorer countries (take Greece, for example, compared with Germany).  At this rate, Germany should not be trading on equal footing with Greece.  The euro is partly to blame here.

Sam Roeble

#10, Feb 7, 2013 3:16pm

Devra Torres, Feb. 7 at 10:04am

 One thing I did glean from the conference is that a crucial aspect of the whole mess is to find ways to strengthen the economies of the immigrants' countries of origin, so that large numbers of people would no longer feel forced to leave in the first place.

 I agree with you here.  Greece is a great example of this point.  I know some Greek families who fled before the Euro was first being introduced.  They came to Detroit, MI and are doing very well now.  So well, in fact, that for half a century, there is a metro area in downtown Detroit called "Greektown", and it's not the only one in the US or Canada,etc. 

Now, if greeks can immigrate to the US and do well in Detroit, then certainly, Greece needs help and economic strengthening. 

One way that I am suggesting is through fair trade and not free trade.   Even if they're stuck with the Euro, they can still get greater profit from their exports with tarriffs than w/o them on their imports in free trade.  

Sam Roeble

#11, Feb 7, 2013 3:19pm

Here's a summary of Paul VI's thoughts on global trade.  Again, this isn't doctrine, it's just vision for development of nations:

Trade. Unfavorable trade relations between rich and poor countries cannot be allowed to nullify any aid that might be given (a. 56). The industrialized nations have an advantage, because their exports--for the most part manufactured goods--have steadily rising prices, while the under-developed countries' exports--mostly food and raw materials--are under-priced and subject to wild fluctuations (a. 57). Social justice obligates the better-off nations to rectify inequitable trade relations (a. 44). The rule of free trade, taken by itself, is no longer able to govern international relations because economic conditions differ too much from country to country (a. 58); freedom of trade is fair only if it is subject to the demands of social justice (a. 59). Without abolishing the international competitive market, it should be kept within the limits which make it just and moral, and therefore human (a. 61).

Devra Torres

#12, Feb 7, 2013 4:44pm

Sapperdepitjes, maybe I'm just too American, but I don't know...I wholeheartedly endorse the children-of-the-same-God and brothers-and-sisters part, but I think it's worth discussing how we can keep a firm hold on that insight while at the same time appreciating our distinct national characters and cultures.  The states here in the U.S. used to be much more individual, each with more of a distinct "flavor," and now, I think largely because of economic motives--franchises, generic marketing strategies, etc., they've become much more bland and generic.

I do see sometimes in our immigration debate a tendency to act as if a native-born citizen is somehow automatically a more valuable human being than one who happened to be born elsewhere, and I have nothing good to say about that.

What does everyone else think?

Sam Roeble

#13, Feb 8, 2013 1:21pm

Devra Torres, Feb. 7 at 5:44pm

I do see sometimes in our immigration debate a tendency to act as if a native-born citizen is somehow automatically a more valuable human being than one who happened to be born elsewhere

 The more fitting comparison should be between an illegal immigrant and a legal immigrant/becoming citizen.  Native born citizens don't fit the category of immigration.

So, the answer should be (using Mexico again): a migrant worker who comes to the US on a work visa that must be renewed before becoming a citizen is honorable insofar as he renews it.  If he fails to renew it, then he must leave according to law (deportation).

A migrant worker who successfully renews such a visa for the time period it takes to become a citizen (14yrs?) and applies for such citizenship with success is honorable as well.  In fact, this should be the ideal and standard.  And, according to law, no exceptions should be made to this rule.

Sam Roeble

#14, Feb 8, 2013 1:27pm

For those migrants who are already here, visas should be acquired/renewed proactively (both by the migrant and a case worker).  Visas cost money, so, a portion of the migrants income has to be dedicated to renewing the visa--if they don't, then they have to face the consequences.

I speak of this firsthand because I took a friend of mine from Brazil to the Brazilian consulate in Chicago to renew her religious visa.  It's a difficult process, and costly.  However, if it is a priority, then her personal budget would account for it--which it did.  The danger is, of course, that they may deny the visa--or, ask too much (in which case consequences must be faced)

Devra Torres

#15, Feb 8, 2013 1:48pm

Samwise, sorry, I expressed that unclearly: I meant people born here acting as if they're ipso facto superior to people who weren't (whether they're here illegally or would like to come here).

The bishops' spokesman also talked about the most important thing being the "right not to immigrate"--to live in conditions of human dignity so that they don't feel compelled to leave their own country.  I think a lot of people would balk at the idea of America shouldering the responsibility for improving the economies of other countries so that emigration wouldn't seem appealing.  I don't feel at all qualified to comment on the merits of various kinds of trade agreements.

Also, I'm not familiar with the various kinds of visas, green cards, etc., though I've heard, for example, that there are only 5,000 unskilled workers' visas available per year (I think I got that right), and the number of unskilled workers who might be willing to come and play according to the rules, if that option were available, is much higher.

Sam Roeble

#16, Feb 8, 2013 2:43pm

Oh good point.  Limits to work visas seem to be arbitrarily set up by the government.  Why not 10,000 or 100,000 visas if that's the legitimate way for people to work here and potentially become citizens?

If anything, I propose that that number be contested.  It seems very arbitrary to me.  I'm sure the religious visas are the same way.  Why not have an unlimited amount of visas available so long as people are willing to submit to the legal means of applying,etc.? 

If a visa is abused ( or exchanged for another person), then the problems arise, and that might be why there are limitations in place.

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