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Identity, Responsibility, and the Common Good: A Catholic Reflection on Migrants

A Presentation from the Woodstock Theological Center’s Forum on "Honoring Human Dignity and the Common Good: A Catholic Approach to Immigration Reform"

November 3, 2009

By Donald Kerwin, Vice President for Programs at the Migration Policy Institute and Woodstock Associate Fellow

The former superior general of the Society of Jesus, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., said that while we often cannot see God when He is before us, we can see how He has passed through our lives.[1] We can see God’s “back,” not God’s face (Ex. 33:20).

I am reminded of this observation in following Cardinal McCarrick to the podium. As the board chairman of CLINIC, when then Archbishop McCarrick was not speeding between buildings to avoid sniper fire in Sarajevo or visiting refugees in the world’s most dire situations, he was preaching to overflow crowds of immigrants in the Newark cathedral. Today, he is doing much of the same – living on planes, bringing comfort to those in need, and teaching the rest of us that when we open the door to migrants, we open the door to Christ. He reminds us that we are called to give of our riches and of our poverty to migrants, which is to say that we must allow our relationships with migrants to transform us.

His Eminence has also always been present to those of us who work with immigrants. I remember picking him up in my car at the airport in the middle of one the hottest days of summer. My car, with 137,000 miles on its odometer, did not have air conditioning, and when the Cardinal tried to lower the window, the handle came off in his hand: this was real Catholic solidarity! Let me see if I can do justice to his example.


It offends many people to draw a direct from a particular biblical passage or a Catholic teaching document to a narrow public policy position. At the same time, faith cannot be divorced from public life. To the Catholic Church, the fact that states exist to serve human persons necessarily establishes a connection between the moral and socio-political orders. Catholic teaching on human dignity invariably has social and political implications.

In And You Welcomed Me, I write on how the Catholic Church weaves together the language of natural law, human rights, the common good, and sovereignty to present a coherent framework for analyzing the reality of migration.[2] But, of course, what links all of these concepts is the Catholic Church’s reverence for the people at the heart of this phenomenon, and the sense that abstract concepts (like sovereignty and globalization) need to serve human beings, not the other way around. Let me speak briefly on how the Catholic Church views migrants, how it views sovereign states, and how it sees the U.S. immigration debate.

Who are immigrants?

The identity of immigrants – who “they” are – is fundamentally in dispute in the U.S. immigration debate. Fr. Daniel Groody draws powerfully on the theme of “Imago Dei.” Like citizens, newcomers are created in the image and likeness of God (Gn. 1: 26-27). They are children of God. This is their deepest and truest identity, an identity far more profound than immigration status. Groody cautions that while “labeling may be an inescapable part of policy-making,” “the difficulty arises when migrants … are identified principally and primarily in terms of their political status rather than their human identity.”[3]

Thus, the Catholic Church’s rejection of terms like “illegal alien” – whose use seems a point of pride to many – is not a quibble or a semantic point.[4] It’s a line-in-the-sand point. People can break the law, but God’s children cannot be illegal, any more than there can be illegal mothers, or illegal fathers, or illegal brothers and sisters. Nor are immigrants “alien” to the Catholic tradition. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people are called repeatedly to love migrants, remembering their own experience as migrants and displaced people. In the New Testament, we are taught to welcome the stranger not only because we were strangers, but because Christ identifies with newcomers and other people on the margins.

At the end of our nation’s last great era of large-scale immigration, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, 75 percent of U.S. Catholics were foreign-born. Once we get past the labels, we can see that today’s immigrants want what your parents and grand-parents and great-grandparents wanted. They want what immigrants have always wanted. They want what you want – to live in security, to work, to support their families, to contribute to their communities and nation, and to practice their faith.

A recent article on immigration supposedly from a “faith-based” perspective castigates immigrants who violate U.S. immigration laws for their sinful “envy toward Americans’ material and political blessings,” for putting “temporal treasures ahead of a loving God,” and for living “outside the bounds of laws adopted by God’s agents of justice.”[5] I will speak in just a minute to the “rule of law” and, assuming that the phrase “God’s agents of justice” refers to Congress, then to how the U.S. bishops would have “God’s agents of justice” reform our immigration laws. But for now, let me speak to how “alien” this author’s view of immigrants is to the Catholic tradition. Most immigrants, particularly those without legal status, make extraordinary sacrifices for their families. Many work in thankless, low-wage jobs, often living apart from loved ones for years on end. The experience of migration often strengthens their faith: “it tends to concentrate the mind on the true priorities in life, including our dependence on God.”[6] Many immigrants model Christian charity like the Good Samaritan in Christ’s parable. This is how the Catholic Church views immigrants. In fact, it is how the Church “knows” most immigrants to be. This knowledge sets the context for the U.S. bishops’ public policy positions.

What responsibilities do we have to each other?

Many groups see migration through the lens of human rights – and the Catholic Church does as well – but rights in the Catholic tradition always entail responsibilities and are always framed in terms of the common good. Those of you who attended parochial school or who grew up in traditional Catholic households might remember the de-emphasis on individual rights in those institutions, and the emphasis on responsibilities. Likewise, it might be more productive to think about Catholic teaching on migration from the perspective of our responsibilities to each other, than through the frame of “rights” as that term is typically used.

The Catholic Church teaches that states have a responsibility to provide the conditions that allow their residents to live fully human lives and to flourish in their home countries. When states fail to meet their responsibilities and when their members – whether due to gross poverty, war, persecution, or natural disaster – cannot sustain themselves and their families, they have a right and a responsibility to seek better lives. And this right, if it leads them to migrate, creates a corresponding responsibility on behalf of states to receive and to welcome them. Immigrants, in turn, have a right and a responsibility to contribute to the good of their new communities. In Catholic teaching, this is a matter of justice. The Church refers to social justice as “contributive justice” and believes that states have a responsibility to allow their members to contribute.

The “common good” does not mean the “greater good” or the good of a few. Rather, it speaks to the conditions that allow all persons in a community to thrive, including people without legal status. In 1986, the U.S. bishops said: “It is against the common good and unacceptable to have a double society, one visible with rights and one invisible without rights – a voiceless underground of undocumented persons.”[7] In 2003, the U.S. and Mexican bishops wrote that “while sovereign states may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated.”[8] Archbishop Romero said that “the ‘common good’ will not be attained excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for.”[9]

As a practical matter, the bishops think that it furthers the common good to allow immigrants to advance in their studies, to work, to secure basic services, and to obtain police protection. While working on this book, I received testimony from a 17 year-old high school student in El Paso. She wrote:

Throughout my academic life there is diploma after diploma, trophy after trophy that symbolize my achievements….It was in seventh grade that I was accepted into the National Junior Honor Society at my school. I have also done some volunteer work and community service. I have gone to retirement homes and helped out there. I also help tutor elementary kids a couple of times a week after school; that is when I am not very busy with varsity soccer practices at school or at my city league team.

Now I am seventeen years old and have lived in America for more than a decade – for most of my life. I am a teenager who gives back to my community but with every new law that Congress makes, it seems that they don’t want me here. They would rather have kids that were born here and cause mayhem everywhere. They go over me just for the fact that I was conceived in Mexico, which is only a couple of miles away. I can’t drive because I am not allowed to get my drivers’ license. I can’t travel out of town with school programs that I would like to participate in and, worst of all, I can’t visit members of my family back in Mexico because there is no way for me to come back. My friends are now planning a trip out of town for graduation and it seems like I’m going to be left behind …. I would like to go on to college and continue with my studies and become a productive member of society but with every new law that is put against me, my dream seems that much further from happening.[10]

As the bishops see it, it would serve the good of our nation to offer legal status to people like this young woman.

What kind of nation do we want to build?

Our nation’s openness to immigrants turns, in large part, on the kind of nation we want to build.
In the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Dr. Paul Farmer marvels at a sign that reads: “The only real nation is humanity.”[11] This sentiment is true in the most fundamental way. Yet nation-states have been with us for centuries and the issue is how they chose who should belong. In U.S. history, there have been three, often overlapping views on this question. Nativists believe that memberships should turn on characteristics that people either cannot change or should not have to change, like national origin, race, ethnicity or religion. Conservative “civic nationalists” believe that memberships should be defined by a core national culture. According to Samuel Huntington, the defining U.S. culture encompasses religion (primarily Christianity), Anglo-Protestant values and moralism, the work ethic, the rule of law, the English language, European artistic and philosophical heritage, and the principles of the American creed.[12] Under a more liberal civic nationalist view, membership should turn on a shared commitment to ideals like freedom, equality, rights, liberty, justice, and opportunity.

Woodrow Wilson was speaking from this latter tradition in 1915 when he told a group of newly naturalized citizens: “You have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great body of principles, to a great hope of the human race.”[13] President Bush spoke from the same tradition in his first inaugural speech. “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” he said, but it has been “bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds” and “lift us above our interests.”[14] These ideals are that “everyone belongs,” “everyone deserves a chance,” and “no insignificant person was ever born.”[15]

We come from a religious tradition in which, in St. Paul’s words, “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). John Paul II said that Christ died “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.”[16] The nativist vision seems incompatible with this tradition.

Most immigrants want to belong. In addition, they share and renew our core civic values. As Michael Gerson recently put it in testimony to Congress, immigrants display “emblematic” American values. They make the United States “more, not less, American.”[17]

How do we understand sovereignty and the rule of law?

What about the responsibility of sovereign states to control immigration, and the responsibility of immigrants to obey our laws? The Catholic Church acknowledges these responsibilities. In Catholic thought, the concept of sovereignty locates responsibility for the protection of rights and the promotion of the common good. This is the purpose of sovereign states. However, a state’s responsibilities to its own residents do not relieve it of responsibility to safeguard the rights of others. As Pope John XXIII put it, the purpose of “civil authority” is “not to confine its people within the boundaries of their nation but rather to protect, above all else, the common good of the entire human family.”[18] Under this view, it is untenable for a state to see migrants dying on its borders – who were driven there, at least in part, by the failure of sovereign states – and, in the name of sovereignty, to say: you’re not our problem.

Does this mean that the Church favors open borders? No, it recognizes that the state has a duty to ensure the orderly, regulated flow of migrants, and that it can exclude and remove people who do not serve the common good. It supports the rule of law and does not condone illegal migration. Yet the rule of law does not mean putting people outside the law’s protections. Nor does it mean “rule by law.” If it did, police states would be the truest champions of the rule of law.

A system that honored the rule of law would respect rights, but our system makes compliance nearly impossible by pitting legal duties against the right to family unity. Under our laws, for example, people approved for family-based visas have to wait for years until they receive them. As many as 2.2 million may be waiting – without legal status – in the United States with their families.[19] When their visas become available, these people will be required to leave the United States, with no guarantee they will be allowed to return.

The Catholic Church favors reforming U.S. immigration laws because, although they are generous in many ways, in other ways they violate human dignity, natural law, and human rights. And, as everybody agrees, our immigration system is broken.

The U.S. bishops support:

• economic development and respect for human rights and the rule of law in migrant sending countries, so that their residents will be able to stay;

• reducing immigration backlogs to expedite family reunification;

• changing the ways the United States legally admits people and, in particular, allowing people whose labor is needed to enter legally;

• allowing certain immigrants to earn legal status over time;

• enforcing the laws and creating laws that are enforceable; and

• allowing immigrants to learn English and to become fully participating and contributing members to our society.

The bishops believe that strategies aimed at deporting 11 million people or at making life so difficult that they will be forced to leave do not serve the common good. They argue that it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to deport 11 million people. It would separate millions of families, including 4 million U.S. citizen children from a parent. It would lead to the departure of more than five percent of our workforce. And it would be a civil rights disaster.

What does hope tell us?

To the Catholic Church, immigrants are not a problem to be removed, but a source of strength and hope. Hope does not always translate into success in worldly terms, particularly in legislative terms. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, we are not supposed to be successful, but faithful. “We’re sowing the seeds of love,” said Dorothy Day, “and we are not living in the harvest time.”[20] We may not always get what we want from our limited and imperfect perspectives, but we know that God will satisfy our deepest hopes. Gandhi wrote that the “heart’s earnest and pure desire is always fulfilled.”[21] As a pilgrim people in a pilgrim church, we believe that we are moving to more complete, more integrated, and more fulfilled lives. As Bishop Thomas Wenski says, our “hope tells us that faith has a future, that love has a destiny.” And we need to be hopeful, like our immigrant brothers and sisters who seek a better, more dignified life among us. Thank you.


  • [1] James Martin, S.J, My Life with the Saints (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2006) 354-355.
  • [2] Donald Kerwin and Jill Marie Gerschutzx, eds., And You Welcomed Me: Migration and Catholic Social Teaching (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 93-121,
  • [3] Ibid., 3.
  • [4] Rev. Fr. Michael Blume, SVD, Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Migration and the Social Doctrine of the Church Part 1(e) (2002).
  • [5] James R. Edwards, Jr., “A Biblical Perspective on Immigration Policy” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Studies, Backgrounder, September 2009), 8-9.
  • [6] Kerwin and Gerschutz, eds, And You Welcomed Me, xii.
  • [7] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Together a New People: Pastoral Statement on Migrants and Refugees, (1986), para. 10.
  • [8] Conferencia Del Episcopado Mexicano and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop, Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope (2003), para. 39.
  • [9] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 3.
  • [10] Kerwin and Gerschutz, eds, And You Welcomed Me, 102-103.
  • [11] Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World (New York, NY: Random House, 2003), 209.
  • [12] Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 20, 40-41
  • [13] Woodrow Wilson, Address at Convention Hall, Philadelphia (May 10, 1915).
  • [14] George W. Bush, First Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 2001).
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Pope John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day 1996 (July 25, 1995), para. 3.
  • [17] Testimony by Michael Gerson, before the U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, for a hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Faith Based Perspectives, 111th Cong., 1st sess., October 8, 2009.
  • [18] Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (Peace on earth) (1963), para. 98.
  • [19] Doris Meissner and Donald Kerwin, DHS and Immigration: Taking Stock and Correcting Course (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, February 2009), 64-66.
  • [20] Robert Ellsberg, ed., Dorothy Day: Selected Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 99.
  • [21] Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948), 190.