Preservation of Human Dignity Essential to a Just and Effective Immigration Policy

Gráinne McEvoy is an independent scholar based in South Bend, Indiana, and is currently writing a book on American Catholic social thought and immigration policy in the 20th century.

Catholic leaders and immigration experts today insist that recognition and preservation of human dignity is essential to the crafting of effective and just immigration laws. A Catholic social thought understanding of migration recognizes both the natural right of humans to migrate in order to secure safety and a decent standard of living and the right and responsibility of a sovereign state to control movement across its borders so as to protect the common good. Put another way, the preservation of human dignity sits firmly in one scale balanced against the nation’s right and duty to control its borders. Denying the humanity of migrating people upends this equilibrium and risks producing unjust and immoral immigration policies that fail to protect the welfare and security of either Americans or migrants.

The Church’s insistence upon the protection of migrants’ human dignity is rooted in over a century of Catholic social thinking and experience gained by Catholic leaders and social activists working in the field of immigrant welfare and policy reform. These leaders looked to Catholic social teaching to help them understand and confront the challenges and opportunities posed by immigration to the United States. Time and again, they called upon lawmakers to craft policies that recognized and protected immigrants’ human dignity, by, in particular, allowing their natural right to family unity and a living wage. Catholic voices insisted upon these rights, even if it meant opening America’s doors to some while closing them to others. The context within which migration occurs today is different in many ways to that of the previous century. But, this historical experience remains instructive, revealing the importance of protecting migrants’ human dignity whatever the circumstances.

Through the 19th century, the U.S. received millions of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and many countries and regions across Europe, as well as arrivals from China and other parts of Asia. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, that the country experienced historically high levels of new arrivals, predominately from southern and eastern Europe. In this context, leading Catholic social thinkers weighed in on the resulting debate over immigration policy reform, doing so in ways that gave priority to the individual’s right to a living wage. This wage, they argued, must be sufficient to provide a decent standard of living, one which would promote the spiritual and material wellbeing of individuals and their families. Monsignor John A. Ryan and others, committed to protecting the dignity of immigrants and American workers alike, voiced their support for proposed legislation that would introduce literacy testing at ports of entry. Regulating entry in this way, they believed, would reduce the admission of a low-skilled labor force that would be vulnerable to exploitation and undercut American wages. Through a recognition of the human dignity of both immigrants and Americans, Catholic social thinkers insisted that legislators in the 1910s could craft effective and just immigration policy.

In the 1920s, largely due to a nativist response to the high rate of arrivals, the federal government passed a series of highly restrictive, sometimes exclusionary, reforms of immigration law. In response, staff of the Immigration Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (the precursor to today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) looked at how the nation’s laws disregarded or threatened human dignity. They focused in particular on the ways in which immigration laws and bureaucracy were causing the prolonged or indefinite separation of immigrant families. Catholic bishops and their representatives repeatedly appealed for legislative reform, highlighting the “natural and sacred” union between husband, wife, and child. Catholic critics insisted that the individual, imbued with human dignity, had a natural right to live with their family, that guarantor of moral and socio-economic stability. In 1943, Immigration Bureau staff threw their support behind a legislative proposal that would permit U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage to live in the U.S. with their Chinese-born wives, prohibited from entering the country by Chinese exclusion laws that long preceded the restrictions of the 1920s. The Bureau’s support for repeal of the racist bar against Chinese immigration was far from whole-hearted, but they did insist upon the individual’s right to family unity, a recognition and protection of their human dignity. 

After World War II, the Catholic social critique of immigration law developed another layer, one which continued to insist upon the protection of human dignity as an imperative. In the context of the post-war refugee and displaced person crisis, American Catholics, taking a cue from the Vatican, again insisted that their government observe the human dignity and natural rights of the world’s homeless. In his 1941 Pentecostal address, Pope Pius XII focused on the right of all humans to access the God-given material goods of the Earth, an understanding of natural rights to land and resources that transcended but did not ignore national boundaries. After 1945, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference argued that “under proper cultivation, the agricultural lands of the nation will support a much greater population,” and, as such, “the possession of such a superabundance of land places on the people of the United States a moral obligation to provide homes for homeless victims of the war.” In this way, they argued, the U.S. government had an opportunity to craft policy that would protect both the human dignity and natural rights of refugees and the common good and prosperity of the United States.  

Catholic social thinkers were also consistent critics of the bi-national agreements between the United States and Mexico that facilitated the importation of migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere, typically referred to as the Bracero program. Between 1942 and 1964, around 4.6 million Bracero contracts were granted, mainly to Mexican agricultural laborers. Catholic voices were among those who called for an end to a program that exploited Braceros and encouraged the growth of a parallel, illegal market for undocumented laborers, all of which undermined the wages, working conditions, and stability of both Mexican and American farmworkers. Through the 1950s, Rural Life issued policy statements and Congressional testimonies that highlighted how the Bracero program had contributed to the creation of an itinerant and precariously-employed farm labor workforce, creating conditions that were “destructive of human dignity and of the integrity of family life.”

This Catholic response to migration is vitally important in the 21st century. The first decades of the 21st century have brought the migration of millions of people around the world, fleeing violence, persecution, poverty, and environmental catastrophe. Since the earliest stages of his papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded the faithful to recognize the human dignity possessed by all migrants, warning against their mistreatment. The Holy Father has inveighed against a “globalization of indifference,” which has led us to lose sight of the humanity and suffering of others, particularly our migrant brothers and sisters. In his letter to mark the 2018 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he called upon political leaders to devise policies that would permit those in need of refuge to cross borders safely and legally, alluding to the balance between the natural rights of individuals and the common good of sovereign nations by insisting that “the principle of the centrality of the human person … obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security.” Ordinary citizens, including Catholics, also have a responsibility to lobby their political leaders and work, within local communities, towards the protection and integration of migrants and refugees. 

For over a century, Catholics leader and social activists have turned to the Church’s social teaching to identify ways to respond to the challenges and opportunities of immigration to the U.S. A Catholic social thought understanding of migration recognizes that the migrant and the receiving nation both have rights and responsibilities. Although extremely challenging in practice, this balance can only be achieved by the mutual preservation of both the common good of a sovereign state and the human dignity of the individual seeking a home.

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