As of mid January, there were five immigration proposals before Congress; here they are gathered in one chart so we can easily compare them. If we could reduce all the arguments to a single question, it might be: How much immigration is good for America? I think most people agree that some amount of immigration is good for our country, and many would argue that some other amount is too much and is therefore bad for America. Where the political parties differ is in their estimate of how much immigration is the optimal amount, whom to allow in, and how to manage the system. They differ on quantity, quality, and control. However, across both sides of the aisle, there is one underlying agreement and unstated assumption: that immigration is good for the immigrant.
It is valid for Americans, acting in their own interest, to have a discussion about the quantity, quality, and control of our immigration system. And yet as an immigrant, I know that we also need to grapple with other questions that don’t normally take center stage in our public debates on immigration. I want to bring to the forefront a thought that may seem peculiar to many Americans: that immigration is not always an unqualified good. Through discussions with immigrants, I have found that in many cases, the answer is not yes; often it is a qualified yes, and it would help us all to understand why this might be the case.
Immigration can be a good. But it is good, healthy, and fruitful — for the immigrant and the adoptive country — only insofar as the émigré makes the choice freely. Some will argue that, by default, everyone who comes here (legally or illegally) chooses to do so, since the very act of coming here is an act of free will. I say no: It’s not necessarily a free choice.
In the Summa Theologiae (I-II.6), St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “violence is directly opposed to the voluntary.” The word “voluntary” denotes something arising out of one’s own inclination, that which proceeds from the will. He goes on to say that what we do through fear is “of a mixed character,” voluntary and involuntary. Acting out of fear, “inasmuch it is repugnant to the will,” is involuntary. However, an act that “hinders a greater evil that was feared” is voluntary, and therefore willed freely. This understanding of how the will works shows us that the decisions people make to leave their homelands are fraught with complexity, and that some people are here not out of their own free will. And even when they do leave voluntarily to prevent greater harm, leaving can still feel forced because the option to stay in the country of origin was unviable.
When a person is trapped between political oppression, religious persecution, war, slavery, poverty, economic upheaval, etc. and the opportunity to flee elsewhere in order to survive, he will choose survival via emigration (legal or illegal). Therefore, an individual in this situation is not quitechoosing freely. He makes his choice under duress — and that is not a truly free choice. As a result, it is not an unqualified good for either the immigrant or the adoptive country.
In some sense, we know this is happening. We see refugees in the Middle East by the millions fleeing their homelands. Some years back, we saw children coming in waves from Central America to escape violence and brutal gangs that target children for use in the sex and drug trades. There’s no question that for many of these people, coming to America is the best thing that can happen to them.
The benefits are tangible. They go from chaotic lands to one where they can lead a tranquil life. They leave behind societies where deceit is necessary for survival, and they make their new homes in an orderly country governed by the rule of law. They escape crushing oppression under strongmen and societies built for the powerful and connected. They find respect and dignity in this new land. Hungry and downtrodden and with no economic or education prospects, they arrive in an America where there is plentiful food, material help, and opportunities available to those willing to work hard. Those persecuted for their religion find solace in religious freedom. For those of us fortunate to live in America, the physical and spiritual blessings are many. This happy outcome, however, lulls us into complacency and distracts us from the tougher moral and philosophical questions of immigration.
When immigrants are primarily coming to the U.S. to flee violence and fearful conditions in their countries of origin, they are not weighing risks and benefits to make a well-reasoned choice. As new immigrants, they face unknown perils and are exposed to cultural forces that often contradict their own customs and beliefs, leading to family instability, fragmentation, and often dispersion, especially intergenerationally. When they forsake the land of their heritage, they lose their livelihood. Sometimes they lose the value of their education because they cannot practice the profession for which they trained. Some lose all their earthly possessions. They lose their communities and huddle in subcultures to survive cultural disorientation. They lose a sense of who they are and to whom they belong. In short, they are affected economically, morally, physically, psychologically, and socially in unpredictable and sometimes negative ways.
America’s approach to immigration cannot only be that of the Good Samaritan: have mercy on the immigrant and the refugee and give him a home. That’s the answer sometimes, but it’s not sustainable. The more merciful answer — the truly good answer — is to do everything we can to give immigrants and refugees a future and a hope in their own lands.
The answer to our immigration problems will never be resolved simply through domestic-policy decisions: expanding or restricting the number of immigrants; favoring some countries over others; choosing high-skill workers using a points system, or choosing low-skill workers to “do the jobs Americans won’t”; preventing an immigrant from sponsoring members outside of his immediate family; dithering over what “immediate family” means; building walls or opening our border; passing laws to deter migrants either legal or illegal.
Not even a combination of these policy ideas will resolve our immigration problem. Nor can we resolve them by a crass and facile plan that objectifies immigrants, like the one recently posed by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl in Politico Magazine, which recommended that individual citizens — rather than corporations — sponsor their own immigrants, put them to work, and reap the economic benefits of an immigrant of their own. (The original title of the essay was “What If You Could Get Your Own Immigrant?” After readers expressed outrage, Politico changed it to “Sponsor an Immigrant Yourself.”)
The only lasting and just resolution is to help create a world where people of all nations can stay in the land of their heritage if they choose, where immigration is by choice, rather than by necessity. The goal is not to eliminate immigration altogether but to create a more just world for all peoples. A by-product of such a world might be reduced immigration, but it need not be the goal.
We have a responsibility to create a better world for everyone, not just ourselves. St. John Paul II said to his audience on World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2000:
The Church hears the suffering cry of all who are uprooted from their own land, of families forcefully separated, of those who, in the rapid changes of our day, are unable to find a stable home anywhere. She senses the anguish of those without rights, without any security, at the mercy of every kind of exploitation, and she supports them in their unhappiness.
Our unity under God, the call to solidarity, our duty to respect the dignity of fellow human beings, our ethical obligation to love the stranger go beyond welcoming him in our midst. They also require a radical rethinking of our resignation to upheaval in far-distant lands. Rather, as St. John Paul II said, and I am pressing for here: “It includes the advancement of everyone’s right to be able to live peacefully in his own country.”
We should not accept a world where people are forced — through violence and fear — to leave their homeland. The peoples of the world deserve to live in their own lands. It is time to include this as a goal in our discussion of immigration.
— Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.