St. Thomas Aquinas and Immigration

Updated: May 4

Immigration is an important issue right now, as it always has been, so here I present my opinion on the matter based on the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas and the teaching found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In his Summa Theologica (I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3), St. Thomas had this to say (Paragraph divisions my own): "I answer that, Man's relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contained suitable precepts.

For the Jews were offered three opportunities of peaceful relations with foreigners.

First, when foreigners passed through their land as travelers.

Secondly, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Ex. 22:21): "Thou shalt not molest a stranger [advenam]"; and again (Ex. 22:9): "Thou shalt not molest a stranger [peregrino]."

Thirdly, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. With regard to these a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1).

The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.

Hence it was that the Law prescribed in respect of certain nations that had close relations with the Jews (viz., the Egyptians among whom they were born and educated, and the Idumeans, the children of Esau, Jacob's brother), that they should be admitted to the fellowship of the people after the third generation; whereas others (with whom their relations had been hostile, such as the Ammonites and Moabites) were never to be admitted to citizenship; while the Amalekites, who were yet more hostile to them, and had no fellowship of kindred with them, were to be held as foes in perpetuity: for it is written (Ex. 17:16): "The war of the Lord shall be against Amalec from generation to generation.""

This is a fair bit to process. Firstly, St. Thomas clearly distinguishes between temporary visitors, non-citizen residents who lack the rights of citizens, and foreigners who wish to be admitted as citizens. It is he second two categories with which we will concern ourselves, as these are the two categories of immigrant.

On non-citizen residents, it is safe to assume that though they do not have the rights of a citizen, nor some of the responsibilities, that they are still bound by the laws of the nation they inhabit. This would include laws concerning their residency. It is in the best interest of a sovereign state to ensure that an alien dwelling within its borders is not injurious to the host population, nor disruptive to the social order. In light of this, the prohibition found in Exodus 22 could be interpreted in such a manner as to exclude just legal action from the definition of "molest".

If, then, a non-citizen resident violates the law concerning their residency, a fitting legal penalty would be expulsion from the host nation. As a non-citizen, in the case of the US, their residency is a privilege contingent upon their conduct. The right not to be mistreated remains, but it would be difficult to argue that a just legal punishment constitutes mistreatment.

On the subject of those who wish to become citizens of their host nation, the same would apply, alongside additional conditions. The onus to pursue citizenship is on the alien, and it is not the responsibility of the state to initiate that process. In fact, in the United States, foreign nationals have a legal duty to make themselves and their intentions known to the state. Failing to do so constitutes a crime, and as was established above, a just punishment for that crime would not constitute mistreatment per Exodus 22.

Additionally, the state, in the best interest of its people, may impose conditions upon any alien wishing to gain citizenship. The Jews in the Old Testament imposed restrictions based on kinship and historical relationships. Many modern states, such as Germany and Switzerland, require one or both parents to be citizens or for one's spouse to be a citizen.

In the United States, the 14 Amendment to the Constitution grants unrestricted ius soli citizenship, or citizenship is granted to anyone born on US soil. This presents a problem, in that the 14 amendment was not intended for immigrants, but for the millions of newly freed slaves who did not have legal rights beyond simple material freedom. The relevant portion of the 14 amendment is worded: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The use of past tense for "born or naturalized" and of the present for "are citizens" indicates that this amendment was intended to benefit a class of people who already had residence at the time of ratification. This was at the time, and still is, debated by politicians and Constitutional scholars, though the law operates under a more lenient interpretation.

To further expand on how a state is to relate to immigrants, I will turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2241:

"The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens."

The operative phrase is "to the extent they are able". It is also interesting to note that this paragraph affirms the previous assumption that a resident alien is obliged to obey the laws of their host nation.The Catechism also states, echoing St. Aquinas, that the state has the right to make an alien's residence or citizenship contingent upon certain duties of the alien, in that an alien is "...obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens".

In the case of illegal immigration, the alien has failed in the outset to meet the second duty, that to obey the host nations laws. Therefore, fitting punishments would not violate the alien's right to protection under the laws of a nation, as many nations, the US among them, do not strip any person of basic rights even during prosecution for a crime.

The first duty, "... to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them..." is a bit harder to define. As I read it, material and spiritual heritage would include a wide number of things, ranging from historical monuments to the culture of the host nation.

While some would contend that the US as a "melting pot" has no single culture, I would contest this. Most of the founding stock of the United States was Anglo-Dutch, with Scots, Irish, Germans, the French, and Scandinavians also contributing heavily. Before the middle of the 19th through early 20th century, the US was most certainly a predominantly North-West European nation. In addition, the large, predominantly West African population of the South, whose native cultures influenced and were influenced by the Europeans, form a second, distinct, and equally American culture.

The descendants of the founding Europeans, who I will call Amerikaners*, the descendants of the West Africans**, and the Native Americans are distinct ethnic nations who mutually influenced each other, and formed the three pillars of the American cultural identity. While they are separate people with their own unique cultures, they are a single American race, in a spiritual sense.

This is not to say that others are not welcome, but rather that a basic character of the US from a cultural, religious, and social standpoint had already developed and taken root here long before the waves of Southern and Eastern European immigration, and even further before the now ongoing wave of immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These relatively recent immigrants have no doubt contributed to this uniquely American culture, but this should not happen at the expense of the already rich heritage that they were brought into.

There is a real fear, perhaps not unfounded, that ius soli citizenship, unlimited immigration, lax laws, and a failure by some or many new immigrants to integrate fully will undermine and eventually destroy the rich heritage that made this nation a desirable place to live.

On the sensitive subject of immigrant/ius soli citizen children being separated from their parents, I will say only this: A child should be with their parents, unless the presence of the parent constitutes a danger to the child. While I support the enforcement of the law, there is a difference between justice and cruelty. This unfortunate problem illustrates a flaw inherent to ius soli citizenship, in which children and parents can hold two separate legal classifications.

To touch briefly on a point mentioned earlier, that being the duty of a nation "to the extent they are able" to welcome foreigners, There are a few relevant data points that I feel should be taken into account. Homelessness in the US is a longstanding problem. There are roughly ~500,000 homeless in the US, ~125,000 children among them. Of the ~375,000 adults, some ~40,000 are veterans, with an estimated ~1,400,000 million at risk of homelessness.

There are ~43,000,000 people in poverty, ~15,000,000 children among them, and ~15,800,000 households at risk of hunger. A further ~6,300,000 lack adequate food on a continuing basis.The American Society of Civil Engineers ranks the US's infrastructure, upon which all utilities and the economy rely, at a D+. The only three categories of the sixteen in which we rank above a D+ are bridges (C+), railways (B), and solid waste (C+). We are graded D+ in energy, D in drinking water and roads, and have D or D+ grades in all other categories. The ASCE estimates an investment cost of $3,600,000,000,000 to repair our decaying infrastructure at the current value of the dollar.

In Acts 1:8, Christ says "But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth.". I've always found it interesting that He lists these locations in concentric rings. To my ear, it echos what he says in Matthew 7:3-5, "And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother: Let me cast the mote out of thy eye; and behold a beam is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.".

There seems to me to be a pattern wherein Christ commands us to set our own affairs in order before attempting to fix external issues. If we cannot help the poor and suffering among our own people, many of whom sacrificed their minds and bodies in service to the state, how can we expect to help the poor and suffering of other nations' people.

These homeless and hungry, the veterans that our unjust wars have maimed spiritually and physically, the children of our fellow countrymen who suffer, and our own descendants who stand to inherit ruins should be our priority. If we leave them to suffer while opening our arms and hearts to others, how can we claim any right to even look them in the eye? How can we claim love when we step over our brothers and sisters in the street, while we let the starve in the wreckage of a civilization that their ancestors built alongside our own?

I'm not going to make any suggestions as to what should be done about immigration. I have my opinions, which you can most likely glean from this essay, and friends who I do not wish to hurt in a moment of imprudence brought on by the strong emotions that grip me by the throat as I type these last paragraphs. The above has been my own views on the matter, in light of my religious convictions, my civil duties, and the urgings of my conscience.

I am not a theologian, a philosopher, a politician. I am not a cleric or a statesman. I am an American, and I will do and say what I believe is right in regards to my people and my state.

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