Catholic Social Teaching on the Economics of Immigration

Article excerpt

Catholic social teaching and the economics literature take very different approaches to immigration policy. This article is both a rereading of the economics of immigration in light of Catholic social teaching, and a rereading of Catholic social teaching on immigration in light of the economics literature. Catholic social teaching provides a normative framework for immigration policy that is strikingly different from the secular framework within which economics currently operates. For example, the Catholic assertion that migration is a right contrasts sharply with the direction of economics research, which assumes the right of the state to curtail immigration. For its part, the economics literature suggests a new set of pressing questions for Catholic social teaching. Economics raises important questions about policies proposed by Catholic social teaching, and offers a subtler understanding of the effects of immigration in a economy with few barriers to capital, labor, and goods flows.


While only a little more than one percent of the world's population resides in a country other than the one in which they were born, (1) immigrants are heavily concentrated in particular countries. In these countries, large waves of legal and illegal immigrants have sparked a debate about the effects of immigration, and calls for immigration restrictions enjoy a measure of popular support. Not surprisingly, economic research into immigration addresses concerns raised in public debates. The purpose of much of this research is to gauge the economic effects of immigration, to determine whether countries should restrict immigration, and, if so, exactly how it should be restricted.

To anyone trained in the economics of immigration and well-versed in the public debates, Catholic social teaching on immigration comes as a shock. In Catholic social teaching, immigration is a right that the state cannot abridge. This assertion of the rights of immigrants contrasts sharply with the direction of immigration research, which assumes the right of the state to curtail the family's right to seek a better life by moving.

Economists contribute much to the policy debate about immigration. However, there are certain basic questions beyond the economist's expertise, questions that are prior to the economic issues: Do people have a right to migrate, and does this right supersede the prerogatives and interests of the state? What are the duties of migrants with respect to obeying the laws of the host countries, including the laws that seek to exclude them? By what standard of justice do we measure the wages paid to immigrants? Furthermore, what standard of justice should be used toward natives whose wages fall as a result of immigration? These questions are properly called normative in economics, and they are prior to the positive issues addressed by economists. Because Catholic social teaching gives answers to these questions that are different from the answers given by secular sources, the implications of recent economic research must be reinterpreted in light of Catholic social teaching. Such a reinterpretation is the purpose of this article.

A Catholic economist seeking to understand this issue begins with Catholic social teaching to provide a context for the positive analysis. However, the traffic between Catholic social teaching and the economist does not flow in only one direction. The economic analysis of immigration raises important questions about the effectiveness of the immigration policies proposed by Catholic social teaching, and provides a more comprehensive framework within which to understand the phenomenon of immigration and its effects. Moreover, the economic analysis must eventually return to Catholic social teaching, seeking further guidance on certain normative issues that have not yet been addressed or resolved by Catholic social thinkers.

Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration

Catholic social teaching addresses immigration only briefly, but it speaks definitively. …