Andrew Yuengert                Pepperdine University    






Christian Links

Andrew M. Yuengert, "Immigration Policy in the U.S.: A Catholic Critique," Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy: An Encyclopedia, eds. J. Varacalli, S. Krason, R. Myers, and M. Coulter (Scarecrow Press, forthcoming).

Immigration is the entry of non-natives into a country in order to take up permanent residence. Although only about two percent of the world’s population are immigrants, they settle in a handful of countries, and often have significant economic and cultural impacts on those countries.

Immigration policy must address three questions. First, how many immigrants should be allowed in? Second, if there are more potential immigrants than the country wishes to welcome, by what criteria will the country exclude immigrants? Finally, how will immigrants be incorporated into the national community?

In Catholic Social Thought, the right to migrate provides the moral framework for answers to these questions. A true understanding of the nature and extent of the right to migrate illuminates the human goods at stake in migration – the goods of the receiving country, of the sending countries, and of migrants themselves. Too often, immigration policy is formulated with a view to the good of the receiving country alone.

Rights-talk in immigration policy is not unique to Catholic Social Thought. Governments in the West have come to recognize an increasingly broad right to migrate, and have granted extensive civil rights to immigrants already in living in their countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article fourteen, recognizes a right to migrate for refugees and asylum seekers. In the United States, the 1965 reform of immigration law was part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and resulted in an increasingly generous immigration policy. U.S. immigrants are a protected group under civil rights law, and enjoy nearly the same civil rights as natives – excepting the right to vote. In Europe, a commitment to the right of asylum, and to equal treatment of immigrants, has made the regulation of immigrant flows difficult.

The right to migrate in Catholic Social Thought is founded on three principles: the right of a family to sustenance (which also grounds the right to property), the priority of the family over the state, and the right to economic initiative. The last principle safeguards the dignity, or the "creative subjectivity," of the person in economic matters. Immigration, because of its costs and risks, is never undertaken lightly, but is always part of a human person’s life plan. As such, it is undeniably an important act of personal agency and human dignity.

The right to migrate is not absolute (like the right to life), because the goods safeguarded by the right (provision for family, education, personal agency) are not always destroyed by its abridgment. John Paul II states clearly that the right to migrate must be regulated in light of the burdens it imposes on the host country. In this it is like the right to property. Because the right to migrate is international in scope, it should be regulated by the principle of the universal common good. The universal common good is more comprehensive than the common good of a particular country. Countries that rely on a narrow conception of their own common good, one that ignores the rights of those outside of their borders, are likely to ignore the right to migrate.

The right to migrate is not an absolute claim of freedom of movement; it is an insistence that countries take the interests of immigrants into account in immigration policy. However, the right to migrate is near inviolable for one group of immigrants: ‘desperate migrants’, fleeing persecution or the deepest poverty. For these immigrants the basic goods of human life are at risk, the state should not restrict their movement. In international law, this right to migrate is extended by asylum law to those facing political and religious persecution, but is not accorded to desperate migrants fleeing dire poverty. Nations distinguish between ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ immigrants, in order to deny ‘economic’ migrants asylum. Catholic Social Thought suggests that at least some desperately poor ‘economic’ immigrants may deserve something akin to asylum status.

In summary, the right to migrate is not an argument for open borders. Countries may abridge the right to migrate when the exercise of that right sufficiently threatens the common good. Restrictions on the right to migrate should never be imposed arbitrarily, however. It is at this point that research on the economic and social impact of immigration becomes relevant. Recently, three kinds of arguments have been made in favor of restrictions on immigration: economic, cultural, and national security.

Economic arguments focus on four impacts of immigration. First, movements of labor resources across national borders, by broadening the scope of exchange, yield the standard benefits of trade – primarily the production efficiencies of specialization and, in some industries, economies of scale. From this perspective, the effects of immigration are similar to the effects of free trade in goods and free international movement of capital.

Second, adjustments of labor markets to immigration should lead to lower relative wages for those workers who compete most directly with immigrants (in developed nations, unskilled workers), and higher returns to production resources which are complementary to immigrant labor (in developed nations, capital and skilled labor). These labor market effects are primarily a redistribution of income away from resources that compete with immigrants to other resources. Because the impact of immigration of labor markets tends to be small, the amount of redistribution is also small, although its direction (from unskilled workers to skilled workers and owners of capital) is troubling.

Third, immigration benefits immigrants economically. Immigrants are drawn to developed countries by significant wage gains. These gains result in a higher standard of living for the immigrant himself, and in relatively large remittances to the sending country. The impact of immigration on immigrants themselves is often neglected in policy discussions, which often focus exclusively on the costs and benefits of immigration to natives.

A fourth economic impact of immigration is its impact on government finances. The long run fiscal impact is slightly positive for the U.S., but the benefits and costs are distributed unevenly across federal, state and local governments. The federal government receives most of the long term fiscal benefits (through payments into the retirement system), while those states and localities which receive immigrants bear the short term fiscal costs (primarily through education and health care).

Arguments against high levels of immigration emphasize the fiscal burdens of immigration, and the decrease in the wages of unskilled natives. Those who argue for a generous immigration policy emphasize that both the costs and benefits to receiving countries are relatively modest, and the benefits to immigrants themselves are relatively large.

Arguments that immigration is a threat to the common goods of culture are of two kinds. In the first kind of argument, national identity has an important cultural component: a nation is a people who share a common language, are rooted in a common history, and perhaps share a common religion. Cultures, because they are social expressions of answers to universal questions of meaning, are part of the common good of a people, and as such are deserving of protection.

A second cultural argument against immigration appeals not to the intrinsic value of culture, but to its instrumental value as a foundation for democratic governance. Democratic institutions are supported by democratic habits, which include a common commitment to the rule of law, to the common good, and to a common moral tradition. If immigration undermines these culturally ingrained habits, it threatens the foundations of democratic rule.

In the case of the United States, it is not clear that arguments against immigration on cultural grounds have much purchase. To the extent that the United States is truly a ‘nation of immigrants’, which consciously cultivates a liberal, individualistic culture, then it is difficult to argue against immigration on cultural grounds. If, on the other hand, the U.S. is a religiously grounded nation, whose cultural habits of self-government undergird democracy, there are grounds for looking more carefully at the cultural impacts of immigration. Countries which are more conscious of their own cultures likewise may have moral standing to restrict immigration in defense of that culture.

Recent terrorist attacks on the United States have given rise to a third argument against immigration: that it threatens the common good of national security. Because most terrorists have been non-natives, it appears plausible that a reduction in immigration will reduce the terrorist threat. The relevance of immigration policy to national security is more complex, however. Most immigrants are not terrorists, and it is not clear that a reduction in immigration levels will reduce the number of terrorists on U.S. soil. For one thing, many more foreign nationals enter the U.S. each year on temporary visitor visas than enter as immigrants.

All agree that lax regulation and screening of immigrants jeopardizes national security. There is disagreement over whether more effective scrutiny of temporary visitors and immigrants, and the more effective use of intelligence on terrorists, will be enough to reduce the terrorist threat, or whether immigration levels must be reduced also. Some argue that the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is currently overwhelmed by high levels of immigration, and that it cannot be put in order unless immigration is reduced to much lower levels.

Andrew M. Yuengert


Borjas, George J. Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Graham, Hugh Davis. Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

John XXIII. Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra (15 May 1961).

John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981).

John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Solicitudo Rei Socialis (30 December 1987).

John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day 1995 (25 July 1995).

John Paul II. Message for World Migration Day 2000 (21 November 1999).

John Paul II. Message for World Migration Day 2001 (2 February 2001).

Joppke, Christian. Immigration and the Nation-State: The United States, Germany, and Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891).

Meilaender, Peter C. Toward a Theory of Immigration (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Simon, Julian L. The Economic Consequences of Immigration (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

Smith, James, and Barry Edmonston, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997).

Zlotnick, Hania. "International Migration 1965-96: An Overview," Population and Development Review 24, no.3 (September 1998): 429-68.