'Welcoming the stranger' sounds good in principle, but can be very challenging in practice

The question of immigration is always in the news, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has an article over at America which asks some very pertinent questions, and in which he echoes what many of us think, namely, that there is no clear cut Catholic position on this matter.

Passports are a fairly recent invention, and back in the 19th century, people were allowed to move country with relative ease. This was the time of the huge emigrations from Europe to the Americas. Consider, for example, the large numbers of people who left Italy, Ireland, and the Russian Empire in that period, all searching for a better life in the New World. These are the sorts of people whom we tend to admire; they and their descendants contributed hugely to the growth and prosperity of America, even though most of those who arrived did so with hardly a cent in their pockets.

Absolutely no country nowadays has an open door policy. Indeed getting into some countries is really rather hard. When I lived in Kenya, I never went to neighbouring Tanzania, as I simply did not want to have the trouble of getting a visa, which meant queuing up all day at the Embassy, and paying for it.

Back in the 1930s, when so many people were desperate to get out of Germany, a few regimes, or at least their functionaries, were generous with visas. Let’s never forget the great and good Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-Consul in Lithuania who saved thousands of Jews from certain death. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, also offered refuge to whoever could come. Another place of refuge was Shanghai as China had no visa restrictions because it had, at the time, no effective central government.

So, given that those who had an open door policy in the 1930s are considered to have been, to use a cliché, on the right side of history, should we have an open door policy today? Is this the Catholic position? Is this what we mean by welcoming the stranger?

I can’t say that I am opposed per se to an open door policy. After all, Catholic social teaching believes in the universal destination of goods. God gave the earth to humanity; we only divide it up for the sake of convenience and in order to facilitate family and social life. Moreover, if a group of people were in danger of their lives in one country, they would surely have the moral right to cross a border to seek safety. No border officials would be right to try and stop them: this was surely the case with the Jews in the 1930s and with the Rohingya today. To try and stop desperate refugees entering would be tantamount to colluding with their murder.

While no one really disputes the rights of refugees today (indeed these rights are codified somewhere) the truth remains that refugees have a pretty tough time of it, partly because there are so many of them. The same goes for migrants who are not strictly speaking refugees. And this is the nub of the problem: the question of numbers. An economic migrant to the United States circa 1890 presents a rather different picture to an economic migrant today, simply because there are seemingly far more of them, and the native population of the US is far greater. America can claim to be full: not something it could credibly have said in 1890.

The other big question is what does one do with migrants when they arrive? Back in the 1890s new arrivals in the United States could expect very little from the state. But a new arrival today in Britain can expect to be housed, to have access to the NHS and the educational system. It is not letting people in that is the challenge; it is rather the increase in demand on services that when they are there.

All over the world, anti-immigration feeling is running high. This has been the case in Italy for some time now, where the phenomenon of the Northern League considerably predates Trump. Earlier this summer, Guisy Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, the island that has most felt the force of Italy’s migration crisis, was voted out of office. Ms Nicolini was greatly admired by Pope Francis.

Lampedusa represents a microcosm of Italy and a window into just what strains mass migration can cause. The strategy in Lampedusa and indeed the whole of Italy is long established: welcome the stranger and then move him or her on northwards. But that is hardly a long-term solution.

Indeed, when it comes to welcoming the stranger, the wise must look to the future, and ask what the long term effects will be. What happens to the stranger five, ten, or twenty years down the line? This is the real question. Does the stranger return home? Does the stranger assimilate? Does the stranger live as what the Bible calls a “sojourner”, a resident alien who is not assimilated? Is it a violation of their human rights to ask new arrivals to assimilate?

Unlike M. Gobry, my impression is not that the Catholic Church has not got a firm teaching on immigration, but rather that the Church has not yet worked out the implications of what welcoming the stranger means. “Welcoming the stranger” sounds like a good principle, but what does it mean in practice? It would be an excellent idea for the Universal Church to hold some sort of synod on this matter. Then the American and European bishops could hear from bishops whose countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees and migrants, such as Kenya, South Africa, and in particular, Jordan and Lebanon. The latter is an important case study, as the huge influx of Palestinians into the country after 1948 and 1967 is generally regarded as one of the contributing factors to the country’s destabilisation and descent into 17 years of savage civil war. Even today Jordan and Lebanon are under huge pressure thanks to the effects of the Syrian conflict.

As for border controls, annoying as they are for first world travellers as well, these have to stay. Every country needs to know who is coming in, who is going out, as this information is useful in the matter of governing the territory. For in immigration matters the greatest of virtues is prudence, which must work hand in hand with justice and charity.