Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Catherine E. Wilson


May 24, 2013

By Catherine E. Wilson

This commentary is an adapted version of a lecture delivered at Villanova University’s Catholic Social Teaching and Issues of Justice Curriculum Development Seminar on May 15, 2013. 

On April 17, 2013, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744).  A bipartisan bill set into motion by the “Gang of Eight,” S. 744 is one measure in a long line of legislative attempts over the years to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) in the United States.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the main objectives of the 844-page bill are to (1) strengthen border security, (2) mandate employer verification procedures, (3) reduce the visa backlog, (4) develop a “W” (guest worker) visa, (5) advance immigrant integration programs at the state and local levels, and (6) create a path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

Despite the ongoing debate being waged on the merits of the bill, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has, since 2006, remained unwavering in its support for CIR and the multiple iterations of its blueprints and legislative proposals.   Commending the Senators for their introduction of S. 744, Archbishop José Gómez, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, characterized the bill as an “important and historic moment for our country and for the church.”  Identifying areas of needed change in the bill, such as more expansive considerations of family reunification and shortening the path to citizenship to ten years, Gómez declared that “the lives of millions of our fellow human beings and fellow Catholics depend upon” this legislation. 

Ascribing migration to the realm of human rights has been a key movement in Catholic social teaching in modern times. Indeed, as the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, we should keep in mind the document’s keen attention to the rights of the human person, which include the right to conscience, free association, and migration.  However, as Drew Christiansen (1996) asserts, we cannot understand the right of migration without considering the corresponding duty of the larger society to help integrate the immigrant and the responsibility of the immigrant to take part in the integration process.  As the central organizing principle of Pacem in Terris, human rights are the very foundation from which all authentic political authority springs.  When upheld, human rights –according to Christiansen – lead to the attainment of the common good. 

While Pacem in Terris marks a milestone anniversary, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is commemorating its sixty-fifth anniversary this year.  More than a decade before the encyclical’s publication, the Declaration attended to the human right of migration.  Article 13 of the Declaration pronounces that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”  Enshrined in this article is the right of each human person to travel both within one’s country and abroad for the purposes of commerce, philanthropic endeavors, recreation, and educational exchange.  The article also states that “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”  Meanwhile, Article 14 lays out the right to asylum for those experiencing or fleeing persecution in their native lands. 

The United States has always been a refuge for those fleeing economic, political, religious, and social injustice.  In his orders to American troops on April 18, 1783, George Washington called the United States, “an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”  Throughout history, immigrants and refugees have contributed to the flourishing of the common good in America through their unique talents, their cultural and religious heritage, and their innovative and entrepreneurial initiatives. 

As the nation awaits the fate of the immigration reform bill currently before Congress, Catholics and people of faith would do well to revisit the document published by the USCCB in 2003, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.  Maintaining that “we judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us,” the document enjoins the faithful to safeguard the human rights of immigrants as well as to accompany immigrants in solidarity through a “comprehensive network of social services and advocacy for migrant families.”  

Additionally, the faithful should heed the advice in Pacem in Terris to read properly the “signs of the times.” While the USCCB has championed bipartisan CIR legislation as a timely and effective response to the situation of immigration in the United States, policy success in this arena will never replace the kind of work needed to assist immigrants in a spirit of collaboration by public, private, and nonprofit actors at the grassroots level.  Apart from legislative calls to political action, the theme of migration and the call to serve immigrant communities is one that should register well with people of faith at the most basic, human level.  For the faithful – like the newcomer, outsider, refugee, and immigrant – are, in many ways, what Catholic social teaching has referred to as “people on the move.”  

- Catherine E. Wilson is associate professor and nonprofit coordinator, Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”