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How The Church Discusses Migration

This morning at the Faith Angle Forum, we’re talking about faith and immigration. The speakers are Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and Dr. Mark Amstutz, a Wheaton College political scientist.

Sister Norma began by telling heart-rending stories about caring for migrants coming across the US-Mexico border. Their human plight, in her telling, was quite moving.

Dr. Amstutz, by contrast, gave an argument. His basic point was that the all states have to have defensible borders. Protecting human rights and achieving justice depends on a strong, benevolent state. In the immigration debate, he said, these things have to be taken into consideration. Whatever the state decides what to do on immigration has to be done in an orderly, legal way — because this order serves the common good.

In listening to this exchange, I’m struck by the role of emotivism in this discussion. Sister Norma is clearly a compassionate woman, and has a very big heart for these desperate people. On the other hand, to me it seems that she is trying to help migrants violate the law. That’s an uncharitable way to put it, and I keep trying to find a more charitable way to look at it, but the more she explains her position, the harder it is for me to see it in any other way. Her view seems to be that her role as a Christian is to get as many of these migrants into the US as possible — this, as a matter of compassion.

Again, by contrast, Prof. Amstutz is trying to take a more comprehensive view. He described his own view as a “communitarian” perspective — one that tries to balance the wishes of the migrants with the wishes of US citizens. Amstutz said “communitarian” perspective has been discarded by “religious elites”.

One of the journalists present said that after hearing Sister Norma’s account of life at the border, he wondered why he wasn’t there at the border helping her, and why all “decent” — his word — people aren’t doing the same. That struck me as a telling moment, one that showed what a disadvantage people like Prof. Amstutz are when talking about these kinds of issues. As a political scientist, he is trying to bring a philosophical framework to discussing and analyzing immigration. He’s well-spoken, don’t get me wrong, but it’s discouraging to observe how hard it is to have a clear, rational discussion about this issue (and not just immigration).

A journalist asked the two presenters how we determine how many migrants we are to allow into the country. Sister Norma responded by saying that she was speaking to a group of kindergarten students at a Catholic school, and asked them what they thought we should do about all the migrants at the border who are fleeing terrible conditions at home.

The children said, “Let them in,” the nun said. She added, “I don’t know that Jesus would leave anybody out.”

And that was it. This is not thinking. This is emoting — and it is emoting just as much as the kind of rhetoric that Trump and his ilk use when he discusses immigration. Sister Norma is a vastly more genial person than many of the anti-immigrant hotheads are. But it’s still substituting emotion and sloganeering for hard thought about difficult questions.

UPDATE: I had to leave the session at about the halfway point, to go to the airport. The discussion might have taken a different turn later.

UPDATE.2: I’m halfway through approving comments, and it is frustrating how so many readers believe that Sister Norma’s simply telling stories and asserting that Jesus would probably agree with her approach was sufficient. It might be rhetorically effective, but it’s not the same thing as making an argument. She completely ignored in her presentation any contrary ideas. Again, she struck me as a deeply good woman, but if you didn’t already agree with her, she gave you no reason to do so — and no basis on which to think about what immigration law should be. By contrast, Dr. Amstutz — also a Christian, and one who is not opposed to immigration — made a case. A reader points out that Dr. Amstutz once explained his approach in a First Things essay. Excerpt:

The norms of international law stipulate that people have a right to emigrate from their homeland but not a right to immigrate to any particular country. Right of entry can be granted only by the country of destination. Scholars of international relations have developed two approaches to guide these considerations: communitarianism and cosmopolitanism. The policies we favor follow from our loyalty to one of these two approaches. The communitarian favors a more restrictive approach; the cosmopolitan a more open one.

Both seek to promote human dignity. The communitarian sees strong nation-states as crucial. In The Law of Peoples, philosopher John Rawls argues that international peace and justice can only be advanced through well-governed societies. The foundation of a humane global order is the stability provided by nations that take care of their own people and respect the sovereignty of other nations. There are bound to be injustices in this system. Some countries will accord more respect for human rights than others. But without well-governed sovereign nations—strong national communities—the global system will decay into far worse disorder, and the rule of law will weaken within countries.

Recent history supports this view. To the extent that the post–World War II international community has become more humane and prosperous, the cause has been strong, constitutional states. Political ethicist Michael Ignatieff argues: “If we want human rights to be anchored in the world, we cannot want their enforcement to depend on international institutions and NGOs. We want them anchored in the actual practice of sovereign states.” Only national communities have the power consistently to protect rights and enforce laws. Therefore, to advance human dignity and prosperity in the world, we must nourish strong nation-states that are solicitous of the well-being of their citizens and respectful of the sovereignty of other states.

We have a moral duty to care for refugees, but the communitarian insight identifies a concurrent obligation to maintain our own ­societies as stable and well-governed. That means political communities must regulate their borders. Drawing on Rawls, political theorist Stephen Macedo argues, “An immigration policy cannot be considered morally acceptable in justice unless its distributive impact is defensible from the standpoint of disadvantaged Americans.” This does not mean we should not assist foreigners or promote generous immigration policies. Rather, it requires that we give priority to the needs of the most vulnerable in our political community, which today means unskilled American workers. They are the most likely to suffer economically as a result of a larger influx of low-wage immigrants.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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