Sometimes insights come in unexpected ways and from unlikely sources. One such insight recently came from Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, on Tucker Carlson’s TV show, when he offered his thoughts on the present surge of illegal immigrants into the U.S.
Bukele began by saying that people leave their home countries because of lack of freedom, lack of security, or both. He explained that leaving home is never easy because people naturally love their country, its culture, customs, food, weather, and more, and would prefer to remain there rather than leave. Besides, the journey from home can be long and perilous and, even when completed successfully, will leave them facing a different language and culture, separation from their families, and added uncertainty about their future. They choose to migrate, he emphasized, only after carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages.
Concerning who is responsible for such migration, Bukele did not offer a vague diplomatic response, as might be expected. He instead answered frankly, saying it is the governments that fail to meet their obligation to provide opportunity and security for their citizens. That failure he called both “immoral” and “foolish,” the latter because for a country to thrive it needs its citizens to be active, productive workers who help strengthen the economy and expand trade.
In the specific case of the northward migrations from Central and South America, Bukele added, the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the surge in migration because its actual or implied promises of free health care, education, jobs, housing and social stability are a powerful inducement to poor people who seek opportunity and safety.
Bukele concluded that the present migrations from Central and South American countries to the U.S. are bad for both. They harm the departure countries by making them “exporters of people rather than of goods,”and they make the U.S. an importer of burdens on it own citizens and economy. I would add that by offering inducements to the migrants, the U.S. is aiding and abetting the economic declines of the Central and South American countries.
President Bukele’s profound insight into the negative consequences of illegal immigration and the responsibility of those involved is uniquely relevant not only to the ongoing political debate over illegal immigration, but also to the moral/theological debate of that subject in the Catholic Church.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in especially in need of President Bukele’s insight. Their official positions on illegal immigration have been consistently in conflict with traditional Catholic moral theology for decades.
In a 2014 essay I examined USCCB testimony before Congress that same year. Here are a few quotations from that testimony, with my comments in parentheses. (Boldface below is added)
“The United States should strengthen protections for children from Central America. Unaccompanied minors who arrive in the United States possess legal rights which should be honored.” (Neither the distinction between illegal and legal “arrival” nor the rights of the people in the “arrival” country were mentioned.)
“The US and its regional partners must avoid the simplistic approach of addressing the forced migration by forcing children back through increased border enforcement. This response is akin to sending these children back into a burning building they just fled. Instead the approach must prioritize protection for those who are displaced from their homes, especially children, the most vulnerable.” (No examination of the consequences of that policy was offered, despite the fact that such examination is required for assessing the morality of any action.)
The USCCB testimony in 2014 had another major failing—it ignored the relevant doctrine advanced in Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, as these brief quotations from that document make clear: “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property. . . [Although sharing one’s wealth and other temporal blessings is a requirement of Divine Law], it is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law. . . Neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another . . . The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private ownerof more than is fair.”
Even a cursory reading of Leo’s encyclical makes clear that although we all have a debt to our less fortunate neighbors, it is a debt in charity rather than justice and cannot be transferred to a government in a way that violates the rights of others citizens.
I submit that the profundity of President Bukele’s insight about the harmful effects of illegal immigration on both the country of origin and the country of destination are not only compatible with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum—they add a new dimension to it.
In combination, these insights reveal that the USCCB’s long-standing position on immigration is based on a mistaken understanding of Catholic moral theology. The bishops continually refer to the Gospel to justify that advocacy. They repeat the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’s teaching to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and love your neighbor as yourself. They remind us of His promise, “whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” And they proclaim the Church’s commitment to a “preferential option” for the poor. Doing all this is certainly part of their mission and function. But it does not, cannot, by itself justify their advocacy of virtually open borders.
To borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, the bishops’ advocacy of virtually open borders is doing the easy part of the task, ignoring the hard part, then “going home to their tea.” But that is not their only fault. For centuries, the Catholic Church has taught that the end does not justify the means. In this case, that means the noble end of helping the poor does not excuse the immoral means of doing harm to the migrant countries and the destination country.
The time is overdue for the U.S. bishops, and their counterparts in Rome and around the world, to abandon the absurd notion that the only way to apply the Gospel and help the poor is to send them to other countries for governments there to care for. A much wiser and better approach—one that is surely more pleasing to God for its use of the intelligence He gave us—is to advocate instead for reforming governments and improving social and economic conditions within poor countries so that “the least of Christ’s brethren” can experience safety and opportunity in the lands of their birth. I hope and pray the bishops will have the humility and courage necessary to accomplish this urgent task.
Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved