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Pope John Paul II on Illegal Immigration

January 8, 2007

Keeping with this week’s theme for the United States Catholic Church, National Migration Week, I will be posting comments by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the topic of immigration throughout the week. So much has been said on the topic by these two popes that it does not seem justifiable for any educated Catholic to be either ignorant of, or hardened toward their words. Immigration is anything but a fringe issue in Catholicism today.

The following are excerpts from John Paul II’s Message for the 1996 World Migration Day, given on July 25, 1995, along with my short comments. The theme of this message was “Undocumented Migrants”.

John Paul II recognized that, even a decade ago, migration as a whole was becoming a significant social and political problem:

Migration is assuming the features of a social emergency, above all because of the increase in illegal migrants which, despite the current restrictions, it seems impossible to halt. Illegal immigration has always existed: it has frequently been tolerated because it promotes a reserve of personnel to draw on as legal migrants gradually move up the social ladder and find stable employment. (no. 1)

Today the phenomenon of illegal migrants has assumed considerable proportions, both because the supply of foreign labour is becoming excessive in comparison to the needs of the economy, which already has difficulty in absorbing its domestic workers, and because of the spread of forced migration. (no. 2)

John Paul II realized, especially in the case of illegal immigration, that the pressing issues of migration could not simply be ignored by the greater part of society as if the problems would simply dissipate or improve on their own:

The necessary prudence required to deal with so delicate a matter cannot become one of reticence or exclusivity, because thousands would suffer the consequences as victims of situations that seem destined to deteriorate instead of being resolved. (no. 2)

Make no mistake about it: John Paul II did not advocate or promote illegal immigration. However, he did suggest that there are commonly present certain social imbalances that directly contribute to illegal immigration, requiring a political and economic reform to be undertaken by the nations and regions from which immigrants come and to which immigrants go. In the case of the United States, certain socio-economic policies must be given honest and objective evaluation in order to determine if there is a direct or indirect contribution to the economic woes in Mexico:

Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants. The most appropriate choice, which will yield consistent and long-lasting results is that of international co-operation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment. The present economic and social imbalance, which to a large extent encourages the migratory flow, should not be seen as something inevitable, but as a challenge to the human race’s sense of responsibility. (no. 2)

The heart of John Paul II’s Message is an appeal to the heart of the Christian, who must look behind and beyond the more legal and political realities of illegal immigration, for law, which is not always guarenteed to be just toward the human person, always proceeds from the human condition and not the other way around. The person precedes the legal structures of the State.

How are Christians to view the undocumented migrant? John Paul II is unambiguous:

The Church considers the problem of illegal migrants from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all within a communion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership, but on the common desire to accept God’s word and to seek justice. “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

The Church acts in continuity with Christ’s mission. In particular, she asks herself how to meet the needs, while respecting the law of those persons who are not allowed to remain in a national territory. She also asks what the right to emigrate is worth without the corresponding right to immigrate. She tackles the problem of how to involve in this work of solidarity those Christian communities frequently infected by a public opinion that is often hostile to immigrants. (no. 3)

First and foremost, in the case of undocumented migrants, the Christian should seek to attend to the basic needs and promote the rights that are unconditionally part of human existence. These include the basic rights to food, shelter and work–rights that no laws may contravene. The right to emigrate and the right to immigrate cannot be divorced without skewing the underlying meaning of the migrant’s condition. However, this does not imply that the legal status of the migrant may be dismissed. There are, here, two issues. On the one hand, the Christian is called to care for the migrant irrespective of legal status, and on the other, the State by right enacts and executes laws to regulate immigration, per se. In other words, whatever may be the lawful consequence of illegal immigration, the Christian is called to recognize the dignity and rights of the migrant, and when necessary, speak out against immigration laws and policies that may threaten to eclipse that dignity:

His irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored. (no. 2)

What can we do as Christians? The Holy Father replies:

The first way to help these people is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to State law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence. (no. 3)

While the migrant is in our midst, we are called to be compassionate listeners and resolved agents of mercy and charity. The migrant in our midst cannot be deprived of the basic needs of life, regardless of legal status. When we consider the person, we must think pre-politically, pre-legally. The law cannot and must not be permitted to fully shape our perception of, and reaction to a human person in need. Each migrant has his/her own story, his/her own reasons for migration. Based upon the socio-economic conditions he/she faced in his/her country of origin, a migrant may very well have legitimately immigrated from the perspective of human rights, yet still be branded by the host country an “illegal immigrant”. When we cease to listen, we cease to emulate our Lord.

A change of attitude may be necessary for many Christians. If their default mode on the question of the undocumented migrant is always the rights and laws of the State, then they must strive ever harder to see all migrants with the eyes of Christ.

In the search for a solution to the problem of migration in general and illegal migrants in particular, the attitude of the host society has an important role to play. In this perspective, it is very important that public opinion be properly informed about the true situation in the migrants’ country of origin, about the tragedies involving them and the possible risks of returning. The poverty and misfortune with which immigrants are stricken are yet another reason for coming generously to their aid. (no. 4)

The simple fact that a migrant many times is forced to relocate due to poverty and injustice in their nation of origin ought to be enough to convince the Christian that there is a genuine need for the compassion of Christ to be shown. This compassion can come in the form of providing for and meeting basic needs, yet it can also come in the form of helping “illegal migrants to complete the necessary administrative papers to obtain a residence permit. Social and charitable institutions can make contact with the authorities in order to seek appropriate, lawful solutions to various cases. This kind of effort should be made especially on behalf of those who, after a long stay, are so deeply rooted in the local society that returning to their country of origin would be tantamount to a form of reverse emigration, with serious consequences particularly for the children” (no. 3)

Another important step for Christians is to educate themselves on the real issues and not permit partisanship, political loyalties and sympathies, and stereotypes to completely condition their thinking on migration. Too often an undue reliance on the media, on political platforms or on gut reaction shapes the Christian conscience rather than the responsible study of socio-economic trends that cause migration and the application of Catholic social teaching to unique and often difficult cases. Asserting simply that the State has sovereignty and the right to protect its borders bypasses the crucial questions of human dignity, the right to labor and the conditional right to migrate–questions that the Christian cannot afford to ignore.

John Paul II notes that many migrants, especially those of Latin America, are Catholics and must be given proper pastoral care at the diocesan level:

The prominence assumed by the welfare aspects of their precarious situation should not mean that less attention is paid to the fact that there are often Catholic Christians among the illegal migrants who, in the name of the same faith, often seek pastors of souls and places where they can pray, listen to God’s word and celebrate the Lord’s mysteries. Dioceses have the duty to meet these needs.

In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters. It is the task of the various Dioceses actively to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community. (no. 5)

Finally, John Paul II reminds us that Jesus Christ, himself once a migrant in a strange land, is uniquely found in the most vulnerable, weak and destitute of people:

Man, particularly if he is weak, defenceless, driven to the margins of society, is a sacrament of Christ’s presence (cf. Mt 25:40, 45). “But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed” (Jn 7:49), was how the Pharisees judged those whom Jesus had helped even beyond the limits established by their precepts. Indeed, he came to seek and to save the lost (cf. Lk 19:10), to bring back the excluded, the abandoned, those rejected by society. (no. 6)

The undocumented migrant is especially a symbol and sacrament of Christ in our midst. That us welcome him/her as a sibling, not permitting legality to play the decisive factor in receiving our loved one:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). It is the Church’s task not only to present constantly the Lord’s teaching of faith but also to indicate its appropriate application to the various situations which the changing times continue to create. Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that “stranger” in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself. (no. 6)


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