Illegal Immigration and Social Morality

According to Catholic News Agency, Eusebio L. Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, has suggested that the desperation of many illegal immigrants gives them “no choice” but to violate U.S. immigration laws. CNA also reports that Bishop Elizondo believes that a wide array of circumstances place people into situations in which they are “forced” to break the law in order to provide for their families.

There are a number of things troubling about this, if the reporting is accurate, none more so than the idea that people have no choice but to break the law when they are in desperate circumstances. While it may be that violating an immigration law is not a serious sin, it is difficult to see how violating any just law of another nation that regulates immigration does not constitute an act that is at least venially sinful.

The fact that an immigration law may be thought unfair or imperfect does not make it objectively unjust. Every country has a right to regulate immigration as a right related to its national sovereignty. It should do so wisely and generously, but the fact that an immigration law is unwise or ungenerous or even unfair in its allocations does not make the law unjust.

First, our bishops surely do not think that desperate circumstances morally justify all desperately poor people of this world violating our border laws and immigration rules to enter this country illegally and remain here. Even if these laws were rightly considered as purely penal in character, they nonetheless serve the common good of our citizens, and acting contrary to the common good of a nation is surely something that pertains to the realms of ethics and social justice. Literally hundreds of millions of poor people are worse off than the poor of Mexico, but would the bishops want to argue that this morally justifies their crossing our borders illegally?

Second, the notions of “desperate situation” and “providing for your family” are highly subjective and fairly relative determinations. Does anyone who wants to better provide for a family have a moral right to enter this country illegally? Many Mexican families are desperately poor, but the primary obligation to remedy that situation surely falls on the government of Mexico. Otherwise, any nation could morally ignore the plight of its own poor, and sidestep its own moral responsibilities of social justice, and by doing so encourage their poor to emigrate to another nation.

Indeed, that seems to be precisely what certain nations are already embracing as a social policy, including Mexico. I doubt that our bishops would want to square such a policy with Catholic social justice doctrine. Why, then, do we hear no criticism of the Mexican government for its failure to meet the needs of its own people?  Mexico is not Bangladesh or one of the numerous African or Asian countries whose economy is barely or below subsistence level.

Third, the notion that the poor have no freedom of choice due to desperation undermines the very human dignity of the poor. That is Catholic social teaching. Anything else sanctions a very dangerous general principle, which can easily be expanded to one having no choice but to break other laws, which the bishops surely would not countenance.

Bishops on the Migration Committee may know the difference between a penal law, which they seem to consider our border laws to be, and a law that is grounded in the moral law of God. But their flocks may well not understand that difference. They might well conclude that because they are truly desperate, why not morally participate in drug trafficking or even human trafficking?

Would the bishops think it was justifiable to violate the seventh commandment by lying or by fraud in order to protect one’s family from being returned to its homeland? Would it be  illegal or immoral to have a fraudulent Social Security card? Or to lie to governmental agencies investigating their citizenship? The Church has been accused of justifying lying for its own purposes. Do we really want to encourage others to lie and commit fraud if that’s their only “choice” to protect their immigration status?

One never hears from the bishops who argue that illegal immigration is not a moral issue that other possible actions of illegal immigrants are immoral: that lying is never justifiable; that fraud is never justifiable, even for a good purpose; and that this should be admitted at least when legitimate governments are enforcing a just law.

Likewise, receiving benefits that are justifiably restricted to citizens, such as welfare payments, is never described by the bishops as fraud or theft. If it is sinful for citizens of a country to defraud the government when it comes to welfare payments – which is surely a violation of the common good – how could it be that it would not be sinful for an illegal immigrant to defraud the government?

Regrettably, such questions are never dealt with or even raised by these bishops, who seem solely concerned with granting citizenship to those who not only violate the laws of the land, but violate the universal common good by undermining the legal process of immigration. (Law-abiding foreign nationals stand in line, often for years, awaiting the opportunity to legally immigrate to the United States.) 

Justifying illegal immigration undermines the law itself and surely encourages more foreign nationals to take the illegal route rather than wait and follow the law of the country to which they desire to emigrate.

Personally, I very much favor greatly expanding legal immigration from our southern neighbors. But undermining of the laws of this country – even if one believes they are unwise – and to call them unjust seems ludicrous, and totally undemonstrated by any natural law principles.

It’s is the worst possible solution to a very complex and important social issue.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at