Immigration and Good Citizenship

This blog is written by Dr. Bernard Dauenhauer, a professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Georgia, whose research interests include Phenomenology, Existentialism and Political Philosophy. He now lives in Cincinnati, serves on the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Immigration Task Force, and volunteers for Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles begins his 2013 book “Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation” with these words: “Our national debate about immigration has reached a crossroads. For more than a decade, we have basically defaulted on this issue.” We remain at this crossroads and continue the default.

Ted Bergh’s reflection, “Immigration in America,” admirably summarizes Archbishop Gomez’ account of how American Catholics can and should bring their faith to bear on this debate. Let me add some remarks about how every serious citizen,Catholic or otherwise, ought to think about and discuss this matter.

In Archbishop Gomez’ striking terms: “Immigration is about more than immigration.” It has also always been about who we are as a people and where we are heading as a country. “It is always about American renewal.” Here are some of the things every citizen ought to bear in mind.

We as citizens have abundant reasons to be proud of our nation’s ideals and the ways they have shaped our history. But that history is by no means a story of all light and no darkness. It includes, among other things, periods of “legalized” racism directed against Native American peoples, Afro-Americans, people from China and Japan, and Latin America migrant workers. All too often some peoples have been made scapegoats, legally or otherwise, for various hardships we and our fellow citizens experience. The national ideals we rightly cherish demand: “No more scapegoats!”

We citizens ought also to keep in mind the fact that, given the internationalization of today’s economy, no nation’s prosperity is wholly independent of its dealings with foreigners. Indeed, history shows that the United States, like many other presently prosperous nations, has gained at least some of its wealth at the expense of the Third World. When this profit results in the destitution of other people, justice calls for some redistribution of wealth. Sometimes, the most effective way to do so is to welcome some impoverished immigrants. In short, no nation has such absolutely clear title to its own territory that it can rightly, under all circumstances, exclude all needy foreigners.

From a somewhat different perspective, we ought to recognize that most immigrants seeking residence in a significantly safer or more prosperous nation do so under some duress. People who find themselves compelled by serious need to leave their homeland regularly experience painful, even wrenching, loss. Much of the pressure to emigrate is either unfortunate, because it springs from natural causes, such as drought, or unjust, because it has been inflicted on them by deliberate oppression. Thus immigration very often has the character of a remedy for severe suffering, not merely a search for extra opportunities. Hence, any attempt to draw a clear, accurate line between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” immigrants is bound to fail.

These considerations certainly do not cover all the relevant issues involved in the immigration debate, but one other, often overlooked, point deserves mention. No immigrant arrives empty-handed. Each of them brings to his or her host nation a perspective and voice shaped by a distinctive heritage. This “gift” provides indispensable aid to a host that wants to understand as well as it can both itself and the international context in which it finds itself. By welcoming immigrants we citizens can immunize ourselves against the ignorance that breeds prejudice and tempts us to discriminate unjustly. Thus there is abundant good reason to conclude that a nation’s need for a diverse citizenry will best be addressed if it generally gives some priority to immigrants from strikingly different cultures, particularly non-Western economically depressed cultures.

This set of considerations fits harmoniously with Archbishop Gomez’ belief that “our heritage as American Catholics gives us special responsibilities in today’s immigration debate.”

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