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The Plight of the Reluctant Traveler

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Elsewhere in this The Catholic Telegraph issue, reporters and columnists celebrate various joys of travel. Travel opens new vistas, enriching our moral, spiritual and intellectual lives through experiences with natural wonders, architectural feats, and vibrant new cultures. Tourism is also a lucrative enterprise for “destination locations,” which encourage and accommodate visitors whose business sustains local, regional and even national economies. The right to travel is recognized as a basic human right in all free societies; nations that restrict their citizens from traveling are outside the norm of just political systems. These aspects of travel are related to people who desire to go places where they are wanted and welcomed, and who go there by their own free choice.

But what about people who travel not because of want, but out of necessity, and to places that reject rather than welcome them? When considering aspects of travel, we must take time to consider the plight of immigrants and refugees, for whom travel is not a luxury, but a necessity. These are people traveling—not to seek relaxation and happiness but—to flee violence and sadness. Their journeys are not leisurely and pleasurable; they are dangerous and traumatic. And they are people we Catholic Christians should take special notice of, because they make special claims upon us.

Immigration and refugee policy is, of course, among the more vexing public policy issues of our time. The solutions are not simple, and simplistic suggestions are not helpful. But this issue must hold a prominent place in our moral and policy deliberations. To welcome the stranger and the immigrant is among the Christian faith’s strongest moral mandates, rooted in Israel’s history and Jesus’ teaching.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong,” God commands in Leviticus. “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34). In Matthew 25:35, Jesus says that He will welcome into His kingdom those who saw Him as a stranger on earth and welcomed Him.

These passages suggest that Christians should have a strong presumption in favor of humane immigration and refugee policies, mirrored by a strong suspicion of policies that seek to ban migration or overly burden migrants. While presumptions can be qualified and negated by circumstances, the presumption with which we begin has a significant impact on our moral attitudes and policy advocacy.

Too often, though, impulsive reaction to the immigration issue is less informed by Christian charity than national identity or party loyalty. To be sure, national interests are a legitimate aspect of immigration policy; however, for Christians, the nation’s interests should also be first qualified by the Church’s teaching, which calls us to use a moral language that is consistent with the dignity of all persons and to advocate for policies that are welcoming rather than repelling. Our impulse should be to build bridges, not walls; that is not to say that walls are not necessary—rather, that they must have broad gates that are widely and generally open.

In this context I suggest three principles for thinking about immigration and migration issues.

First, as noted above, we should not presume exclusion, but inclusion. This presumption is, of course, subject to many limiting factors, including the economic feasibility of the receiving nation to accommodate the number of immigrants seeking entrance. Infrastructure and facilities are other examples, especially for border towns and cities. It may be unfair to some host cities, and detrimental to all involved, to not regulate the number of immigrants and the relative timing of their arrivals. These are legitimate limiting factors, presuming first a welcoming immigration policy.

Second, we should modify our language in this debate, including excising references to “illegal aliens.” Persons who cross borders without properly securing visas should, of course, be subject to just and fair laws. But no human person is “illegal.” And the term “alien” is, well, alienating.

Third, and similarly, we must make distinctions between economic migrants and political refugees. The latter typically has greater demands upon our leniency than the former. The more dire the situation is from which the refugee is fleeing, the more difficult it can be to obtain proper legal documentation. This must be a factor when considering individual cases’ equities. While economic hardship and political oppression are often closely related, when political or religious persecution motivates a refugee to risk his or her life, this usually tips the scales to favor refugees over economic migrants—again, if qualifying the presumption to welcome all is needed.

National security and safety interests cannot be ignored in immigration and refugee policy, but for Christians, these are secondary, not primary considerations. Beginning with that assumption can lead to a just, humane and fair policy, so that the reluctant traveler may find a welcoming destination.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the July 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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