Kinship Across Borders: Catholic Ethics and Migration

by Tess Daniels


Immigration remains one of the most hotly contested topics in our current political climate. In her lecture “Kinship Across Borders: Catholic Ethics and Migration,” Boston College Theology professor Kristin E. Heyer reworked the narrative to include Catholicism, describing the numerous dimensions a Catholic perspective adds to the immigration narrative. Heyer reevaluated immigration and migration not in the usual partisan manner, but with a scope that encompasses the humanity of migrants.

Heyer began by questioning the idea that immigrants are “criminals,” an idea popularized by President Trump’s campaign. Throughout his campaign and, indeed, throughout his presidency, Trump has focused on constructing a wall, enforcing a travel ban, and modifying detention and expedition practices. Heyer argued that these moves harm already vulnerable groups. She questioned the “collective amnesia” that permeates American society, which allows us to label immigrants as “others,” without acknowledging that our ancestors were immigrants as well. Heyer remarked how xenophobia and nativism have significantly contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment. She lamented the recent resurgence of white nationalism, pointing to racist rants at a recent “White Lives Matter” rally in Tennessee.


Heyer then brought up how Catholic ethics dramatically change the immigration debate. Catholicism asks what it means to act with humanity. Referencing specific Scripture passages, including the liberation of Israel from enslavement and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Heyer emphasized the overarching theme of caring for the stranger. Pointing to Jesus’ ministry to foreigners in the New Testament, Heyer maintained that authentic compassion entails not only charity and hospitality, but also justice.


Heyer then turned the conversation to modern Catholic immigration ethics, seen especially in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). CST stresses, among other themes, the importance of solidarity with migrants, the dignity of work, workers’ rights, and the universal responsibilities that are inherent for all humanity. Heyer suggested that to fulfill these responsibilities, the U.S. government should focus on providing a viable path to citizenship, instead of prioritizing border enforcement. She discussed what it means to live in a true democracy under the mantel “We the People,” asking whether those famous words include immigrants.


Heyer also mentioned the substantial impact made by religious figures such as Pope Leo XIII, Pope Francis, and Blessed Oscar Romero, who emphasized an economy that serves the people. She praised the example of these three leaders, and decried the dictatorship of faceless economies in which workers are seen as commodities.


Next, Heyer discussed how the migration crisis particularly affects women, who make up half of the migrant population worldwide. These women not only earn less in their unregulated jobs, but also often experience sexual harassment and lack available avenues to report it. An astonishing 80% of Mexican women immigrants in California report sexual harassment, a statistic made possible by the barriers to speaking out in the face of abuse. Heyer argued that these threats to family values and to the migrants’ humanity, should be threats to us all.


Heyer ended her lecture with a criticism of the prevailing “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” idea of the American dream. This mantra, she argued, is incompatible with the solidarity needed to reach across borders and help migrants. She pointed to hopeful signs, such as Pope Francis’s witness to personal encounters. Finally, Heyer declared that, “If we want security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us give opportunities.”

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