On Human Migration and The Immigration Crisis


It would be, in our opinion, a false narrative to suggest that the topic of this post (human migration and the immigration crisis), is somehow new and merely the current controversy on the minds, televisions, streaming sites, of the public. But, immigration has been a complicated issue since the earliest days of the United States. With this being said, not only has it become concerning that we have treated immigrants the way we have over the last few years, but the way we talk about the issue should also be of considerable concern. With the lack of long-form discussion formats (although this is changing as we speak) available on cable, meaningful discussions are replaced with ill-produced and ideology-ladened 30 to 120 second segments. For this blog submission, which will be buttressed by an event, we hope to consider the issue in much more systematic and well-considered manner. To help us do this, Lawrence Talks has asked Ebenezer Obadare (Sociology), Lua Yuille (Law), and Luke Murray (Catholicism) to provide their unique perspectives on the matter.

The Sociological Perspective - Ebenezer Obadare

Between Globalism and Nationalism: the Immigration Debate at a Crossroads

Nothing illustrates the current political polarization in contemporary United States more starkly than the showdown over immigration. While, on the one hand, ‘globalists’ insist on our moral obligation to refugees and victims of political persecution no matter where they are coming from, and apparently in whatever numbers, ‘nationalists,’ many of whom are not necessarily against immigration per se, argue that throwing open the borders without due attention to (1) security and (2) integration of immigrants into the American system, is a prescription for disaster. I think that neither position is inherently untenable or illegitimate, and blame the irate political mood in the country for the inability of each side to hear, let alone debate the merits of the other’s position. Nevertheless, even though I hold that neither position is inherently illegitimate, I do think that overdetermined, each is liable to result in great distress for the country. I believe that having an open and honest debate is the best security against this potential distress, and I am hopeful that this particular forum will serve as a modest advance in the desired direction.

The globalist argument is at its most impregnable when it insists on our moral obligation, as Americans, to welcome the “tired,” “poor” “homeless” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” To abandon this obligation, globalists rightly argue, is to betray our “calling” as Americans and turn our backs on the very principle that sets us apart from other nations. It’s a key argument, one that I think more ‘nationalists’ will do well to pay attention to. They-I mean nationalists- cannot continue to insist on American exceptionalism, while at the same time disregarding one of the ingredients that go into constitution as a unique nation. At the same time, I see nothing wrong in, one the one hand, insisting on our moral obligation to the distressed, and, on the other hand, asking serious and often uncomfortable questions about the socio-economic and political drivers of migration, not just to the United States, but to the advanced democracies of the global North in general. Understanding those drivers can open pathways to a deep appreciation of what immigrants desire, and the conditions inhibiting the realization of such in the countries they are often desperate to leave.

To put it starkly: What makes an increasing number of young people desperate to risk everything, crossing several borders, to get to, say, the United States in the case of immigrants from Latin America, and the southern edges of continental Europe (Spain and Italy specifically) in the case of African immigrants? We know what we owe such people, but what do the states they are so eager to leave behind owe them? What has broken down in their relationship with those states, and why is it that globalists in this part of the world appear, on balance, to care more about them as human beings deserving of dignity and humane treatment, than the governments of the very countries of which they are citizens? I don’t think the identity of who is asking these questions- whether they are globalists or nationalists- matters as much as that they are pressing questions for which urgent answers are required.   

But it is not just the globalist argument that can do with some nuance. ‘Nationalists’ are right in insisting on due diligence in order to ensure that new arrivals do not constitute a security risk, and that American border protections be strengthened or upgraded accordingly. As a matter of fact, and to go somewhere even more controversial, I don’t think it is wrongheaded to insist on building a wall, either as a security measure, or a way to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Should there really be a conflict between, on the one hand, demanding that we take seriously our moral obligation to victims of political conflict, and, on the other hand, insisting that those who wish to come to America do so legally? Lastly, it seems to that ‘nationalists’ are right to make what I call the “civic” or “ontology” argument, to wit: those who come to America must buy into America. Put differently, the surest path to successful integration for newly arrived immigrants is to recognize the fondest ideals of the American republic and adhere to them.

Yet, increasingly, and, suffice to say, frustratingly for those of us who are quite eager to see both extremes reconciled somehow, the nationalist argument is often indistinguishable from the most sinister form of cultural protectionism. In this absolutist imaginary, immigration of any kind is the problem, and the task before us is to batten down against the debasement and corruption that new immigration is seen as epitomizing. I hope I am not being unfair to ‘nationalists’, but I seriously believe that they have not done enough to put daylight between themselves and fringe hijackers of their arguments. Our history, which I would urge ‘nationalists’ to pay more attention to, offers plenty of lessons in how quickly things can unravel when we cede the argumentative ground to extremists.

The Legal Perspective - Lua Yuille

Understanding Citizenship

The legal migratory experience of different groups as they traverse the terrain referred to as citizenship is markedly different. The concept of citizenship— its role in American law and society is disputed. Nonetheless, citizenship is universally accepted as a powerful resource because it is the currency of identity and belonging through which individuals and entities gain access to central, permanent, and extensive institutions of necessary for survival. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that “[i]t would be difficult to exaggerate its value and importance.” Even as its meaning shifts and evolves, citizenship itself is, normally, understood and framed as a largely static status category to which one may or may not claim and acquisition of which is a slow process. However, many legal beings experience citizenship as a dynamic process to which they may have varying degrees of access over time. Examining stories of "the who" and "the what" of  migration and citizenship forces use to think about "the how,” “the why,” and the “why not”. 

The Catholic Perspective - Dr. Luke Murray

The Catholic Church on Immigration

The Catholic Church has a long and rich tradition of Catholic Social teaching that dates back to the first centuries of Christianity in its engagement with the Roman Empire. Although not always systematic in its presentation, traditional Christianity has always held - at least in theory - of the the equality and dignity of all human beings. In 1891 and in response to the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII issued the document “Rerum Novarum” (On new things) which clarified and emphasized  its teaching on human rights and other social issues, including the duty of Christians to help migrants. More recently in the United States, the US conference of Catholic Bishops issued two letters dedicated to US immigration: the 2001 letter “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” that called for a conversion of hearts and minds of Christians to welcome their immigrant brothers and sisters, and another joint letter with the Bishops of Mexico in 2003, entitled “Strangers no Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” The latter lamented that the current immigration system in the US is  badly in need of reform and offered a set of recommendations for bringing about a more humane and just immigration system. Most recently, Pope Francis’ encyclical “Gaudete et exultate” (Rejoice and Be Glad) in April of 2018 explicitly commanded all Catholics to see Christ in migrants and to view their treatment as a most important matter, equal in importance even, to the cause of ending abortion.

Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. (G&E, 101).

The Pope goes on to cite the very words of Jesus that the standard with which we will be judged is how we treat the stranger among us:

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? [emphasis mine]

Of course, there are many passages of Scripture that emphasize the need to care for foreigners and strangers. I’ll only mention two, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were constantly reminded to treat the migrants and aliens among them with special care. The prophets frequently reminded them they too were once aliens in the land of Egypt: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt (Lev 19:33-34). Likewise, New Testament begins with an account of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus fleeing from Herod and living as refugees in Egypt. Later, Jesus says directly that we will be judged by how we love the poor, the weak, and the refugees (strangers):

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Mt 25:31-36)

To summarize a long discussion, the Catholic Church holds to three fundamental principles when it comes to immigration (and which can be found on the United States conference of Catholic Bishops website.)

  1. People have a right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.

  2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.

  3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.

The first principle - that people have a right to migrate - follows from all people being created in God’s image and likeness as sons and daughters of God. In addition to seeking food, shelter and clothing, the Church also holds that all people have a right to education, medical care, and the free exercise of religion and culture. Furthermore, the traditional Christian view is that the goods of the earth ultimately belong to all people since God created the earth for all, and not just for the rich few. So while the Church still holds that private property is legitimate contra Marx, she affirms that it cannot be used without regard for the common good.

The second principle - that countries have the right to regulate their borders and control immigration - might seem to contradict the first principle at first glance. Here, the Catholic position holds that those in charge of a state or community do not have a duty or obligation to accommodate all people who wish to settle in their territory. Recognizing that resources are limited, sinful (violent) tendencies do exist, and that people have a duty to protect and take care of their families - be it the nuclear family or the nation as an extended family - the Church is realistic about the need to control borders, and she even affirms that those who do enforce border control should not looked upon as evil,  but as defenders of their family.

Finally, the third principle is the most important, as well as the most difficult.  What are justice and mercy? Are they opposed? How can we have both? According to traditional Catholic teaching, genuine justice and mercy are not opposed but that mercy is the perfection of justice. Mercy, therefore, is not an emotion, or the position that “evil-doers’ get off “scot-free” but it follows from a love that leads one through justice (often accepting the consequences of one’s evil actions) to a welcoming and transforming position of love that no longer remembers the evil done. In regards to immigration, this might mean seriously vetting those accused of crimes and even turning away those who are a danger to the community. However, keeping in mind the dignity of all people and the commandment of the Lord to take care of the “stranger,” the Church emphasizes that there must be a serious reason to not help a person when we have the means to do so. This means that cases of migrants must be examined on a case by case basis, recognizing the reality of sin and our need to protect our families, but also remembering the blessings and mercy which God has given to us and which we have been called to share with others.