ZENIT Asked J. Kevin Appleby to Give an Overview of the Issue in Light of the Pope’s Visit and Church Teaching

ZENIT asked J. Kevin Appleby, the senior international migration policy director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a member of the Scalabrinian International Migration Network (SIMN), to give an overview of the issue in light of the Pope’s visit and Church teaching.

Pope Francis will soon visit Mexico and will visit the U.S.-Mexican border in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.   What will the Holy Father do at the border?  What is his purpose for visiting the border?

Pope Francis is planning to celebrate Mass near the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez and to pray with migrants near the border wall in memory of the thousands of migrants who have died in the desert on both sides of the border.  By remembering these forgotten dead, Pope Francis hopes to remind Catholics and others of good will that immigrants, refugees, and other persons on the move are human beings, made in the image of God, and that their lives and human dignity should be respected and protected by governments and their fellow human beings.

Is the Pope showing support for illegal immigration?

No, he is calling upon powerful nations, such as the United States and Mexico, to reform their institutions, policies, and legal systems so that migrants do not have to suffer and possibly die in search of protection and security or the opportunity to provide for their families. In his talks on migration, he has decried the “globalization of indifference” toward immigrants and refugees present in the world.  Although globally we share communication, capital, and goods across borders, human beings seeking work or safety are not protected, the people who often perform the most difficult jobs in the world economy.  As a result, they can die trying to attain and earn the basic necessities of life and security that many of us take for granted.

What is Church teaching on migration?   Does the Church, as some critics have suggested, support open borders?  Are there limits to immigration that can be instituted by sovereign nations?

No, the church does not support open borders.  In fact, church teaching acknowledges the authority of governments to manage and control their borders.  The question is how and to whom this authority is exercised.  In his encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), St. John XXIII wrote about the “universal common good,” which requires nations to accommodate migration flows “to the degree they are able.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church applies a higher standard to more prosperous nations, which “are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood that they cannot find in their country of origin.” (No. 2241)  The universal destination of goods, in which the Catholic Church professes that the goods of creation are destined for the human race as a whole, undergirds this teaching.

This does not mean that nation-states, to preserve the well-being of its citizens, cannot regulate immigration and control their borders, particularly if it is for national security reasons, but such regulation and control must be implemented in a manner proportionate to any threat and in a way that protects human life and human dignity.

The Church supports the reform of national immigration systems, including in the United States and Mexico (see Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, pastoral letter of the U.S. and Mexican bishops, 2003) in a way so that immigrants can migrate legally to work and support their families and that refugees can find protection and security.  In many situations today, undocumented workers fill important and difficult jobs in an economy, but are subject to abuse and exploitation because of their lack of legal status.  Over the long-term, the global community must work together to address the root causes of irregular migration, such as economic inequities and conflicts in sending countries, so migrants can remain in their home countries to support their families in dignity and in safety.

Do you think Pope Francis will speak to the issue of thousands of Central American children and families fleeing violence in their home countries to the United States in search of safety?

It is unclear whether the Holy Father will address this situation, but it is likely that he would in some way, either publicly or privately with government leaders.  In July 2014, he wrote the Holy See-Mexico colloquium on Migration and Development, at the height of the migration crisis, and stated that unaccompanied children fleeing Central America should be “welcomed and protected.”  In his speech to the U.S. Congress in September, 2015, he urged the United States to respond to migrants “as best we can” in “a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.”  “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays,” he told Congress, “to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

We are in a U.S. presidential year and are hearing claims by some of the candidates that undocumented immigration is high, especially from Mexico, and is a threat to our way of life and economic well-being.  What are the facts: Are more undocumented persons coming to the United States?

No, actually the undocumented population is falling.  A recent study by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (cmsny.org) found that from 2010-2014, the undocumented population from Mexico dropped 9%, or by 600,000 people.  The undocumented population of all other Latin American countries, except the conflict-ridden northern triangle countries of Central America, also dropped.  Overall, the number of undocumented in the United States has fallen to 10.9 million, down from 11.7 million five years ago.  The reason for this drop is unclear, but it might entail several factors, including a soft economy in the United States, demographic trends in Latin American nations, and increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Is the Catholic Church supportive of immigration reform in the United States?  Why has it not passed?

Yes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has long supported comprehensive immigration reform, as laid out in the pastoral letter with the Mexican bishops, Strangers No Longer:  Together on the Journey of Hope.  Central to the position of the Church is the need to bring the undocumented population out of the shadows and on a path to citizenship, so they can fully contribute to society and live without fear. The Church also supports immigration policies which promote family reunification, as family separation and breakdown is an often ignored humanitarian consequence of the international migration system.

Despite several attempts over the past 10 years, immigration reform has not passed Congress.  There are several reasons for this, but it is not unusual for Congress to try several times to pass a major reform bill before it becomes law.  It is likely that the issue will re-emerge in the next Congress, after the presidential election.