Migration, much of it illegal, from northern Africa to southern Europe is at a record high. Water routes across the Mediterranean are prevalent and thousands of deaths attributed to capsized boats have dotted the news. The situation has been escalating for several years, beginning with the failed “Arab Spring” and culminating in the present civil wars in Syria and Libya and the march of ISIS throughout the Middle East. Stark numbers of both illegal immigrants and deaths during attempted crossings are contained in this informative BBC report, and related stories on their website. Immigration processing centers in Greece, Malta and Italy are overwhelmed; these migrant destinations are naturally dictated by their proximity to various jumping off points from north Africa. As related in the BBC report, north African migration into Europe has soared four-fold in 2014 vs 2013, to well over 200,000 immigrants, driven largely by Syrians seeking asylum as they flee the turmoil.
As might be expected, much of the migration is illegal, and includes exploitation by what is alternately called smugglers and traffickers. Like other examples of human trafficking, the migrants are made to pay relatively hefty sums and then forced to endure deadly transits in unsafely loaded boats or rafts. Sometimes they are turned back, sometimes they make it to their destination in southern Europe, and sometimes the inadequate vessels capsize and they drown. The map below is from the 2014 Annual Risk Analysis report of Frontex, the EU’s border management organization, showing the rise in illegal immigration (at least what was detected) in last couple of years.
Pope Francis has regularly challenged and appealed to all nations to end dangerous migration and welcome immigrants. As late as Sunday, he appealed to the broader EU community to help fund the efforts of put-upon Italy to rescue immigrants at sea. Indeed, Italy had an effective but expensive program known as Mare Nostrum, which saved over 100,000 imperiled lives in the Mediterranean, but which was closed down near the end of 2014 and replaced by a more modest Frontex program.
Even as the EU struggles for a response, one might take a look at the map and squint, and imagine the similarly northward flow of Mexican illegal immigrants into the U.S. What is the proper way to handle the situation, both in the EU and America? I will admit to being conflicted on this issue, maybe because I believe what our Catechism teaches about immigrants:
“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.” CCC 2241
So, we have a moral obligation to welcome immigrants, and to protect them. We also have a moral duty to the common good to set rules that maintain peace and order, and have the right to insist that immigrants obey those rules in order to come and stay here. Immigrants are to be grateful and respect our “spiritual heritage,” obey our laws, and carry out their new civic duties. Seems like a simple and elegant compact–which neither side is altogether perfect at observing. I’ll admit to being a wary native who chafes at a newcomer who won’t speak English and flies another nation’s flag over the stars and stripes. I’m also keenly aware of the tremendous privilege to be a citizen of the United States, and my personal moral obligation as a Christian to help those in need.
Some of my thoughts follow on what should happen, in these tense and dangerous situations. First, anyone in peril should be saved, regardless of the foolhardiness or illegality of their effort. I don’t support “open borders” because the concept completely discounts the enormous value of citizenship, a status that non-natives should earn. (Notwithstanding the many citizens who themselves disrespect the privilege, which is a separate issue) The border of a nation should be secure and well defended. Immigrants should arrive at designated locations only and ask to enter into an affordable and reasonable pathway to citizenship, with time limits; or ask for emergency asylum if they can prove persecution. Preference should be given to intact families. Incoming immigrants should be required to learn the vernacular; preference should be given to those who already speak it. I would support some kind of means-tested assistance to learn the vernacular if necessary; take a skills assessment; and look for a suitable job. (Could this be privatized via Monster.com or LinkedIn?) I realize many programs along these lines already exist–perhaps the biggest gap at present is the porous and/or overwhelmed borders and the gray area of when to send back arrivals(?)
I’m certainly no expert, but we need to find ways to bridge the gap between wary natives and desperate immigrants, for our mutual corporal and spiritual benefit.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us and for immigrants in peril!