Immigration is an immensely complex and controversial issue in our contemporary political climate.
Positions are entrenched; debate is polarized; strong rhetoric bolsters diametrically opposed sides; and deeply held views are seemingly unwavering.
So much of the debate is grounded in fear of the stranger.
Certainly this language and approach cannot come from God, as those of God are without fear.
How is one to navigate such an important issue in such a difficult climate?
The Franciscan Approach
The special place Franciscans hold for the marginalized and the rejected originates from our founder’s first encounter with the leper.
- This experience changed everything for Francis and helped him recognize that he — like the leper — was a ‘poor’ man totally dependent of God.
- Francis’ embrace of the outcasts of his society, especially lepers, is certainly relevant in today’s world that marginalizes many, including our immigrant brothers and sisters.
Further, the Franciscan charisma begins as a group of itinerant preachers.
- Through this itinerant spirit and with a particular love for those who are poor, Franciscans read and follow the inspiration of scripture and Tradition to further their insights.
The purpose of Holy Name Province’s efforts on immigration reform is to form communities and relationships that will uphold and safeguard the ‘lepers’ in our midst.
Principles and Insights from our Tradition and Scripture
“Among man’s personal rights, we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of the state officials to accept immigrants and-so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood permits, to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.”
— Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, #106 (April 11, 1963)
In scripture, there is a Biblical injunction to love the “stranger.” The Chosen People, Israel, were admonished to remember the way they were harshly treated in Egypt before the Lord brought them to the Promised Land. In remembering this harsh treatment, they are told first in Leviticus and then again in Deuteronomy, that they should treat the “stranger” among them kindly: “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as yourself; for you two were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) This becomes a reminder of our itinerancy from the beginning of the story of the people of God.
The New Testament, rooted in the story of Israel, carries this admonition forward. Jesus experienced forced pilgrimage (as Joseph and Mary sojourned in Egypt). More than this, though, Jesus indentified himself with the plight of the “stranger”: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) Encountering and welcoming the “stranger” is, in Christ’s own words, an encounter with Jesus himself.
Peter reminds the Church that they are “aliens and sojourners” in his first epistle (1 Pet. 2:11); while Paul reminds us that: “There is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) These apostolic teachings function to remind us that our identity and collective conscience is not, ultimately, properly founded on the nation in which we reside, but the “kingdom come” for which we wait. This understanding from our first Pontiff, reminds us that the ultimate reason for itinerancy is the desire for our relationship with God.
Based on these teachings from scripture, Catholic social teaching builds upon four basic tenants when considering the immigration issue:
- Essential human dignity of all persons
- Promotion of the common good
- Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable
- Call to solidarity.
Promotion of Human Dignity
“The comprehension of the human being, that the Church acquired in Christ, urges her to proclaim the fundamental human rights and to speak out when they are trampled upon. Thus, she does not grow tired of affirming and defending the dignity of the human person, highlighting the inalienable rights that originate from it. Specifically, these are the right to have one’s own country, to live freely in one’s own country, to live together with one’s family, to have access to the goods necessary for a dignified life, to preserve and develop one’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage, to publicly profess one’s religion, to be recognized and treated in all circumstances according to one’s dignity as a human being.”
—Pope John Paul II, Message of the Holy Father for the World
Day of Migration 2001, par. 2 (February 2, 2001)
With the teaching of human dignity as its foundation, the Catholic Church seeks to affirm those rights, which are essential to dignity. Those rights include “all that is necessary for living a genuinely human life: for example, food, clothing, housing, the right freely to choose their state of life and set up a family, the right to education, work, to their good name, to respect, to proper knowledge, the right to act according to the dictates of conscience and to safeguard their privacy, and rightful freedom, including freedom of religion.” (Gaudium et Spes, par. 26)
Promotion of the Common Good
“The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights. These teachings complement each other. While the sovereign state may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated.”
—Congerencia del Episcopado Mexicano and United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope, par. 39.
Preferential Option for the Poor
“If we recall that Jesus came ‘to preach the good news to the poor” (Mt. 11:5; Lk 7:22), how can we fail to lay greater emphasis on the Church’s preferential option for the poor and the outcast?”
—Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millenio
Adveniente, par. 51.
Just as God expressed his preferential option for the poor by becoming one of us, so too must our ministry be incarnational. As Franciscans, we are called to stand alongside those who suffer threats to their essential human dignity. With acts of hospitality and advocacy for justice, we must bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.
Promotion of Solidarity
Based on the Gospel and the teachings of our patron, Francis of Assisi, Holy Name Province endeavors to promote the recognition of human dignity in our immigrant brothers and sisters by standing in solidarity with them in the pursuit of justice. We see this mission as one that is required of us in recognition of the basic human rights of all people. But more than this, we seek to welcome the stranger in fulfillment of the Gospel imperative — to treat our migrant sisters and brothers as we would Christ himself.
(For more information and reflection, we highly recommend the U.S. and Mexican Conference of Catholic Bishops pastoral letter “Strangers no Longer.”)
Some Background on the Current Immigration Issue
There are an estimated 12 million undocumented individuals living and working in the United States. The vast numbers of undocumented individuals present among us reveals both the intense demand for labor in the country, as well as the ineffectiveness of policies for regulating the flow of people across U.S. borders. It also exposes the negative effects U.S. policies have had on the home countries of those who come to this country seeking a better life.
While legislation on comprehensive immigration reform failed to pass in the 110th Congress, there is no indication that the issue is going anywhere soon. The debate over immigration reform persists with many legal and ethical battles now being waged in the nation’s states and municipalities.
Proposals for addressing this situation have ranged from and included elements of the following: building barriers on the U.S.—Mexico border, increasing border security, reforming guest-worker programs, instituting additional pathways to citizenship, and economic development in sending-countries.
The attempt at reforming the immigration system comprehensively — including all of the above approaches in addition to other elements — has failed. But the work for a just, equitable, and sustainable immigration system has not.
Facilitating a deeper understanding of the issue includes exploring the history and genesis of the problem. For more information about the emergence of the contemporary immigration debate, please see the following PowerPoint presentation of Professor Julia Cardona Mack (University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill).
For more information and background on the contemporary climate of the issue (prepared by the BBC), click here.
As Franciscans, the specific principles we attempt to bring to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform are ones that seek to build relationships that value all persons.
If a set of laws or systems were to split families, create opportunities to easily disadvantage workers (especially the poor) or lessen the dignity of a person in any way, then it must be changed. This becomes the test of a particular policy.
For a short video from Franciscan Action Network sharing the Franciscan approach to immigration reform, click here.