Online Course Unit 3

The Right to Migrate and the Common Good

Andrew M. Yuengert ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Three principles describe Catholic social teaching on immigration (Yuengert, 2004):

  • There is a right to migrate – both to emigrate and to immigrate (Pacem in terris[1], 21; Populorum progressio, 69; Laborem exercens, 23).
  • The right to migrate is not absolute. Host countries may regulate migrant flows when the burdens of immigration threaten a nation’s common good (WDM, 1993; WDMR, 2011).
  • The right to migrate is especially strong for poor migrants and refugees; nations should not abridge their rights lightly or arbitrarily (WDMR, 2013; Evangelii gaudium, 210).

Pope Francis has not changed the three principles of Catholic social teaching on immigration. Consistent with his apostolic vision, however, he begins with the third principle. Poor immigrants and refugees are often marginalised and vulnerable, and should be first, not last, in our hearts (WDMR, 2019). Fraternal charity balances a healthy love of one’s native land and a universal love for those in need at and beyond one’s borders (Fratelli tutti, 142).

The current political impasse over immigration challenges the Church to be more specific about its second principle. The 1987 Immigration Reform and Control Act promised a combination of an amnesty for three million illegal immigrants and renewed enforcement. It delivered the amnesty but not enforcement, setting the stage for intractable political conflict. Thirty years later, after decades of large legal and illegal immigrant inflows, the US immigrant population stands at 42 million—13 per cent of the US population (Blau and Mackie 2017, p. 19). The number of illegal immigrants stands at 11 million, nearly four times higher than in 1987.

In the last three decades the opposing positions on immigration have hardened. Immigration reform movements in 2007 and 2013 promised a “path to citizenship” paired with new enforcement initiatives. Each effort foundered on conservative suspicion that enforcement would once again fail to materialise, and the left’s growing intolerance of any restrictions whatsoever on immigration from poor countries.[2] Donald Trump was elected in part on a promise of enforcement, amid ongoing chaos at the border. The impasse in Europe is equally intractable, although it is focused more intensely on questions of national identity and on the effects of Muslim and poor immigrants on homogeneous secular cultures.

Conflicts over immigration have contributed to the rise of populist nationalism in the US and Europe. Supporters of these movements (labelled “somewheres” by Goodhart, 2017) identify more closely with place, and with those who share their community and nation. They suspect that the elites who rule them (the “anywheres”, according to Goodhart) neglect their interests in favour of global initiatives. Populists tend to be poor and working class. In the US, it is well documented that they have done poorly both inside and outside of markets. Their political concerns focus on immigration and trade, which they regard as threats to their well-being.

As the politics of immigration has become polarised, economic research into the effects of immigration has expanded. The National Academies of Sciences recently published a comprehensive summary of recent research (Blau and Mackie, 2017). The basic conclusions have not changed since the last National Academies’ report in the 1990s (Smith and Edmonston, 1997). Immigration has large beneficial effects on immigrants themselves and net positive effects on natives on aggregate. Although the aggregate effect on natives is positive, the effects are distributed unevenly. Immigration has small but probably negative effects on the wages of low-skill native workers and has overall modest effects on government budgets (although the effects differ widely across states and localities, and between the state and national governments).[3]

Two bodies of research, one addressing the benefits of immigration to immigrants, and the other addressing its burdens for native workers, bring into sharp focus the conundrum posed by the populist challenge to a generous immigration policy and for Catholic social teaching. Firstly, new research on “place effects” vividly documents the enormous benefits of migration to poor immigrants. The economic gains to migration are not a simple redistribution of material goods. They reveal a morally significant expansion of immigrant labor productivity.

A second body of research takes as given the relatively modest negative effects of migration on poor natives, but questions whether even modest burdens on this group are acceptable. Government transfers have not shielded poor and working class natives from the dysfunctions that attend even modest declines in job prospects. Populist challenges to immigration bring to the fore a crucial question: how should we weigh large economic benefits to immigrants against relatively modest but humanly significant losses to native workers and their communities? Should the fact that poor natives are “our poor” count for something in our policy deliberations?

Catholic social teaching gives us few resources to grapple with the tension between the rights of vulnerable poor migrants and the modest negative effects of immigration on the vulnerable native poor. In theory, the Popes accept the need to weigh the right to migrate against potential damage to the common good of the host country. In practice, they are quick to classify concerns about the effects of immigration on native incomes and culture as “aggressive nationalism” (FT, 159). The explicit ethnic chauvinism of many populist movements deserves the Church’s criticism. Nevertheless, we need to hear more from the Church on what an appropriate concern for the national common good looks like—about the contours of “well-ordered nationalism”.

The discussion on the economics of immigration will be organised around the three principles of Catholic social teaching on immigration. The first section reviews the right to migrate and its ambiguities in light of the common goods of the country of origin and of the host country. The following section reviews recent research on the effects of immigration on host countries. The third section examines the Church’s emphasis on solicitude for the poor, contrasting the strikingly large benefits to poor immigrants with the plight of the native working class poor.

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The right to migrate

The right to migrate in Catholic social teaching is oddly different from other rights. It is not absolute, like the right to life. You cannot deny even yourself the right to life. The right to migrate is more like the right to enter into marriage, which does not impose an obligation to marry. We have a right to migrate, even if we do not exercise it. Still, the right to migrate differs from the right to marry in one important respect: Catholic social teaching expresses a certain regret when someone exercises the right to migrate; there is no similar regret when couples marry.

The ambiguity comes from the relationship of the migrant to two common goods. An international immigrant touches two nations, each with a common good. Gaudium et spes defines the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (26). The common good is the shared justification and purpose of the state. It is a necessary framework for human flourishing. Its conditions include respect of the rights of the person, the family, religious communities, and civil society.

The “social conditions” of the common good are co-operatively produced by the members of a state. Each should share in the benefit, and the joint project produces a certain fellowship among citizens. A shared common good calls forth a sense that we are “debtors” to our communities, and generates solidarity, “a firm and enduring commitment to the common good” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004[4], 195). We owe something to the countries in which we live and to our fellow citizens. A community which pursues its own common good identifies as a community, as a “we”. Our contribution to the common good is crucial to our flourishing.

An immigrant finds himself between two national communities, each with a common good. He leaves behind a nation whose common good has a claim on him (unless it is oppressing his dignity) and enters a country whose common good he does not share in the same way that citizens and residents of the host country do.

The first source of ambivalence about the right to migrate is the common good of the country of origin. Gaudium et spes affirms a right to migrate, but the affirmation is an aside to a discussion of the “right and duty” of all citizens in developing countries to contribute to their country’s common good:

it is their right and duty…to contribute to the true progress of their own community according to their ability. Especially in underdeveloped areas…those who hold back their unproductive resources or who deprive their community of the material or spiritual aid that it needs—saving the personal right of migration—gravely endanger the common good (65).

All citizens should employ their resources toward the common good of their countries. The countries themselves should respect and safeguard this right and duty. However, this expectation does not permit restrictions on “the personal right of migration”.[5]

The context of the right to migrate comes with a default expectation that people will participate in and contribute to their native land’s common good. When migrants exercise their right to leave, it is often because they are unable to participate in the common good there. The right to migrate exists when there are “just reasons” to leave (PT, 25), when citizens are exploited or otherwise prevented from contributing “according to their ability” (GS, 65).

Clearly, there is some ambivalence about the right to migrate: it merits respect and urgent protection, but its widespread exercise is a symptom that something has gone wrong in the country of origin or in the international system.[6] John Paul II notes that migration is a loss to the home country, whose native sons and daughters contribute to some other country’s common good instead (LE, 23). Pope Francis expresses regret for the “cultural and religious uprooting” of emigrants, and “fragmentation … felt by the communities they leave behind” (FT, 38). . In an ideal world, fewer people would exercise the right to migrate (FT, 129).

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Three arguments for the right to migrate

Yuengert (2004) outlines three arguments from Catholic social teaching that together support a right to migrate. They also highlight the relationship of the migrant to his native land’s common good. The first is “the right of a family to sustenance” (p. 12). It is closely related to the universal destination of goods, and the right to private property (MM, 45; PP, 69). To flourish, families need access to productive work and this world’s goods. The ability to move across national boundaries is a further guarantee of this access.

The second argument is “the priority of the family over the State” (Yuengert 2004, pp. 12-13). This priority is clearly established by Leo XIII’s defence of private property (Rerum novarum, 13). This principle does not forbid any restrictions whatsoever on the family for the sake of the common good. Rather, it insists that the state and its laws exist for the sake of the family. A state objective that requires the sacrifice of families and other basic societies does not truly promote the common good.

This second argument brings into focus the ambivalent nature of the right to migrate. Potential immigrants originate in communities and nations with common goods. It would be good and just that they seek their flourishing within their home nations and that their home nation would respect and promote their flourishing as part of the common good. Many nations, however, fail to provide conditions in which families can thrive and people can contribute to the common good “according to their ability” (GS, 65). The Popes blame this situation on a combination of imbalances and inequities in the international system as a whole, and mismanagement and oppression in countries of origin. In either case the right to migrate is a safeguard, allowing citizens to “seek better conditions of life in another country” (LE, 23).[7]

The third argument for the right to migrate, “the right of economic initiative”, connects migration explicitly to economic agency, or to the lack of it in the home country. John Paul II describes clearly what is at stake in “economic initiative” in the following way. It is:

…important not only for the individual but also for the common good…the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged “equality” of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen…This provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of national life, impelling many to emigrate… (SRS, 15).

This passage reminds us that an abstract concept such as “creative subjectivity” is closely related to work and economic activity. There is a close relationship between the right to migrate and the right to economic initiative. Although the Popes give special attention to non-economic migrants fleeing violence and oppression, two of the three arguments listed above emphasise material provision and the expression of human agency through economic activity.

Human beings are both material and spiritual: the exercise of personal agency ordinarily has spiritual and material consequences. The suppression of economic agency likewise has spiritual and material consequences. The economic poverty that migrants flee is often an expression of a broader denial of the dignity of the migrant.

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The common good of the host country – economic research

In Catholic social teaching, the right to migrate is not absolute. Large migrations may affect the common good of receiving countries. The Church recognise these burdens and qualifies her assertion of the right to migrate accordingly. John Paul II acknowledged that indiscriminate migration may harm the receiving country and thus ought “to be regulated” (WDM, 2001, 3); receiving countries may fear a “loss of identity” amid a large migrant influx (WDM, 1998). Benedict XVI affirms that “States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person” (WDMR, 2011).

A nation’s common good is pursued at the national level; citizens contribute to it at every level, and they are supposed to participate in its benefits. The primary ways in which immigration may harm the common good is through its effect on culture or through unequal economic burdens on some portion of the native population. Recent research addresses each of these aspects of immigration.

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Cultural effects

Arguments that immigration is a threat to national culture are stronger in countries with stronger ethnic identities. These arguments have less purchase in the US. The United States has always been an ongoing social project, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, as Lincoln described it[8]. US culture has in the past been shaped by the principles on which it was founded: equality before the law, aspirations to self-government, and the associational habits necessary for a vibrant civil society. Immigrants from very different cultures have assimilated to this culture, even those whom natives held in deep suspicion – Germans in the eighteenth century; the Irish in the nineteenth; eastern Europeans in the twentieth; and Latin Americans and Asians in the twenty-first.

There is currently a fierce debate raging in the US over what kind of nation it wants to be. Every aspect of US history, its institutions and its culture are on the table and under attack. Every policy issue is drawn into this debate and immigrants find themselves recruited to one side or the other. Even the ongoing impasse over illegal immigration is really a conflict between natives over the rule of law and immigration policy. It is not an argument between immigrants and natives.[9]

In the face of the deep disagreements over what American civic culture should become, it is unfair to immigrants to expect them to hit a contested cultural target. It is more reasonable to evaluate their assimilation to US culture by means of less disputed measures. Are they criminals? Do they learn English? Do they work hard? On all of these measures immigrants are good neighbours who eventually find their place in US society. Butcher and Piehl (2007) shows that immigrants are institutionalised (incarcerated) at one-tenth the rate of natives of the same age and education. The most recent waves of immigrants learn English more slowly than previous cohorts, but their progress is still steady, and their children speak English (Blau and Mackie, 2017, pp. 114-119). Both immigrant wages and employment increase relative to native workers the longer they live in the US (Blau and Mackie 2017, pp. 998-114).

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Fiscal effects

The effect of immigration on government finances is modest in the aggregate, but unevenly distributed between the Federal and state and local levels. Blau and Mackie (2017) estimate immigration’s past and predicted future effects at the Federal and state and local levels. Unsurprisingly, the predicted impacts depend upon the assumptions.[10] Nevertheless, a clear picture emerges. At the Federal level, immigrants are a net fiscal benefit, especially when the contributions of second and third generation immigrants are counted (Blau and Mackie, 2017, pp. 436-438). At the state and local level, immigrants are a net burden, although the effects vary substantially across states and immigrant generation (Blau and Mackie, 2017, pp. 522-531).

The estimated fiscal effects are complicated by the fact that, under the current unsustainable debt path at every level of government, even the average native is a net fiscal burden, receiving more in benefits and services than they receive in taxes. Any additional person simply adds to the problem. However, in any scenario where the US returns to fiscal sustainability, immigrants and their offspring become less fiscally burdensome than natives.[11]

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Effects on native workers

Economists emphasise the net positive effects of immigration: the efficiency of comparative advantage and of mutually beneficial exchange. The biggest winners from immigration are immigrants themselves, who increase their own incomes considerably. Amongst natives, however, there are winners and losers and aggregate effects do not adequately capture the common good of the host country. The common good includes the good “of each and of all.” Although in theory the winners ought to be able to compensate the losers (through adjustment assistance, retraining, or income support), in practice transfers may fail to compensate for the losses.

As the share of well-educated immigrants has grown (although it is still small), more research has focused on the effects of highly-educated immigration on labor markets. Blau and Mackie (2017, pp. 251-253) survey these results. Although the empirical results are mixed, there is some evidence that an influx of highly-skilled immigrants increases wages across native education levels, perhaps through spillover and innovation effects.[12] Highly-skilled immigrants appear to increase the rate of production of new patents and immigrants in general have higher self-employment rates than natives. Higher rates of self-employment and technological innovation may increase economic productivity, although this research is in its early stages (Peri et al, 2015; Borjas, 2019; Burchardi et al, 2020).

The 1997 National Academies Study (Smith and Edmonston, 1997) surveyed the literature on the effects of immigration on unskilled labor markets and found negative but relatively small effects. The 2017 National Academies study (Blau and Mackie, 2017, p. 267) summarises the intervening explosion of creative empirical research on this topic. New research has not modified the 1997 study’s conclusion: immigration has at most modestly negative effects on unskilled native wages: 2 per cent to 3 per cent slower growth over a 10 year period.

Blau and Mackie (2017, ch. 5) discuss the empirical challenge of discerning the effect of immigration in a dynamic labour market. Immigrants tend to settle in areas where their economic opportunities are greatest; this (and the movement of native workers in response to labor market changes) confounds our ability to isolate the effect of an immigrant influx. Moreover, it is difficult to identify which natives compete against which immigrants. In the short run, immigrants will increase the supply of labour (and decrease wages) in markets where they are substitutes for native workers (unskilled workers and teens, mostly) and will increase demand for labour (and wages) in markets where they are complements.

Whatever the effect of immigration in the short run, in the long run capital investment responds in ways that mitigate these effects. Investors will provide more capital and new technology to take advantage of the influx; this new investment increases demand for unskilled labour, counteracting the fall in wages. When immigrants bring capital with them, or when investors increase capital in anticipation of a large immigrant influx, the negative effects of immigration on wages will be smaller even in the short run.

To summarise, in the short run (over a period of ten years or so) an influx of unskilled immigrants is likely to have modestly negative effects on low-skilled, low-income native workers. This decline in wages benefits native owners of capital. In the long run, as capital levels increase to meet the new supply of labour, the negative effects are smaller: even the relatively small effects decrease. The long-run beneficiaries are the immigrants themselves and the owners of capital.[13]

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Immigrant poor and “our” poor

Although the right to migrate is not absolute, Catholic social teaching cautions nations against arbitrary restrictions on this right: international migrants are usually poor, and even those who are wealthier often seek better conditions and rights denied them in their home countries. Pope Francis notes that Jesus calls the Church to recognise him in “the poorest and most abandoned; among these are certainly migrants and refugees, who are trying to escape difficult conditions and dangers of every kind” (WDMR, 2015). Our attitude toward poor migrants and refugees “is not just about migrants…The progress of our peoples…depends above all on our openness to being touched and moved by those who knock at our door” (WDM, 2019).

Although western nations look with increasing favour on well-educated, highly-skilled immigrants, Catholic social teaching urges us to keep our eyes fixed on the poor. Research confirms that the economic benefits to poor immigrants are undeniably large. They increase their incomes substantially simply by moving across borders. The fact that this benefit accrues to immigrants with relatively small short-run effects on native workers (and even smaller long-run effects) is a puzzle – a puzzle that perhaps only economists fully appreciate. By exploring it, we can see more clearly the human stakes of immigration: the large economic benefits to poor immigrants are an indicator and concomitant of the large non-economic benefits of immigration.

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The Place premium

Not surprisingly, over one million immigrants enter the US each year and very many more would like to come (Clemens 2011, p.83). We take this for granted, but we should linger over this striking fact. In a dynamic, global economy, in which capital, goods and services are all mobile across borders, differences in labour income should not be so persistently large. Workers in poor countries should not have to leave their home countries to raise their incomes significantly. Markets can come to them: capital investment and technology is extremely mobile and responsive to opportunities; and free trade in goods and services allows the poor greater access to world markets than at any time in world history. This raises a crucial question: why does opportunity not come to them?

Consider the following statistics, from Kennan (2013):[14]

  • A Filipino worker, educated in the Philippines and working in the US, earns four times more than a Filipino with the same education who remains in the Philippines.
  • A Mexican worker, educated in Mexico and working in the US, earns two-and-a-half times more than a Mexican with the same education who remains in Mexico.

We find these differences across every country that sends immigrants to Europe and the US: the same person, with the same education in the home country, can earn much more in a developed country than at home.

The characteristics of immigrants relative to those who stay at home cannot explain differences this large (Clemens 2011). Education does not explain this gap, since both emigrants and those who stay are educated in the home country. Neither are barriers to trade severe enough to account for it. Perhaps differences in pay reflect something other than differences in productivity. Maybe Mexican workers are equally productive in Mexico and the US, but simply get paid a lot less in Mexico. However, this is implausible because capital investment and trade (unlike labour) move relatively easily across borders. If workers in Mexico were as productive as Mexican workers in the US, but were paid a lot less, demand for Mexican workers to work in Mexico would be large and expanding; investments in Mexico would be more profitable; and those higher profits would be as persistent as the wage differences. But this does not seem to be the case. Returns to capital are roughly equal across countries (Caselli and Feyrer, 2007). There is no ongoing shortage of workers in the developing world.

Something about the home country itself makes the same worker less productive at home than abroad. The same Filipino worker is four times more productive in the US than at home. The same Mexican worker is two-and-a-half times more productive in the US than in Mexico. Something about countries of origin makes workers less productive there, but does not similarly reduce the marginal productivity of capital investment in those countries. The technical explanation for this disparity is “labour-augmenting productivity” in the developed world (Kennan 2013, p. L2). Clemens et al. (2008) call this “the Place Premium”, although from the point of view of the country of origin it is a “Place Penalty” on labour.

What accounts for this “penalty”? The most obvious culprits are economic policies and institutions of the sending countries that suppress labour productivity (Olson 1996; Clemens 2011). In developing countries it is difficult to start new enterprises and protect them from appropriation by the powerful and politically connected. Justice and the rule of law are applied unequally. In short, workers and entrepreneurs are unable to take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Their native lands give them little opportunity to exercise their economic initiative and employ their skills.[15]

If a worker becomes more productive simply by moving to the US or Europe, then the potential economic benefits from immigration are enormous – much larger than the benefits to free trade, of increased education or of free movement of capital (Clemens 2011).[16] There are trillions of dollars of benefits for poor workers at stake.

The place premium puts human work and human enterprise at the heart of immigration policy. A worker who immigrates to the US gets far more than an increase in income: he or she does not just happen to get paid more. Higher wages reflect higher productivity. He or she produces more and contributes more. In the country of origin, the worker is not robbed of his wages, but paid in accordance with low productivity. Productivity may be so low that workers in their country of origin may be working in inhumane conditions. Workers are deprived of their productivity and must emigrate to realise it.

To use the language of Catholic social teaching, by migrating to developed countries poor migrants do not just “have” more income: this “having” reflects their ability to “be” more – more productive, more creative, more responsible for themselves both in and out of the labour force. Their low incomes in their native land reflects a lack of “being” as well as a lack of “having”. In Laborem exercens, John Paul II asserted that “human work is…the essential key to the social question” (LE, 3). By work man realises himself as a person, develops himself and contributes to his community. The great benefit of work to the human person and to human community bolsters the “right to economic initiative”, the third argument for a right to migrate discussed above. The denial of this right leads many to “opt out of national life”, and emigrate (LE, 15). It generates a poverty which is not purely economic:

… the “poor” appear under various forms…; in many cases they appear as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment, or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it… (LE, 9).

The place premium, and the suppression of economic initiative that it reflects, puts the human stakes of immigration into stark perspective. Many think of the benefits of immigration to immigrants as a sort of redistribution of world income – of rich countries giving something of their wealth to immigrants. The economics of immigration suggest that this is not true. What is happening instead is much more morally significant. The movement of immigrants from countries where their economic initiative is suppressed to countries where they can be more productive is an expansion of opportunity, not a redistribution of income. Pope Francis urges developed countries to welcome migrants and ensure that they “are empowered to achieve their potential as human beings, in all the dimensions which constitute the humanity intended by the Creator” (WDMR, 2018). The tremendous increase in incomes is closely connected to the “empowerment” of immigrant workers.

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Gainers and possible losers from immigration

Research reviewed in the last section confirms that immigration to the US has been and still is an aggregate economic benefit to Americans. Its benefits and costs are distributed unevenly, however. Those who compete most directly with immigrants (unskilled natives) bear some of the cost. These costs are small in dollar terms: at most a 2-3 per cent decrease in earnings growth over a period of ten years. Even this small negative effect does not appear to persist into the long run, as capital investment catches up with the immigrant influx.

Compare these dollar costs with the startlingly large benefits for the immigrants themselves. A poor immigrant sees his or her earnings grow by 200-1,000 per cent. This growth represents, more or less, an increase in productivity. By coming to the US, immigrants escape institutional and legal environments that artificially suppress labour productivity.

Dollar-for-dollar comparisons of costs and benefits clearly favour immigration, especially since immigrants do not appear to be a larger burden on government finances than natives, and they appear to assimilate steadily into US labour markets and culture. Economists are comfortable with these efficiency arguments: when the economic pie increases, those who gain can compensate those whose incomes decrease, and everyone can have more.

Should we make the comparison between the benefits to immigrants and the costs to native workers on a dollar-for-dollar basis? In Yuengert (2004) I concluded that we could only argue against immigration if we were willing to “weigh the wage decrease for native unskilled workers more heavily than the significant increase in wages that is enjoyed by immigrants from much poorer countries”. In other words, we would have to be willing to count the costs to native unskilled workers more than the much larger benefits to poor immigrants. I wrote this somewhat dismissively—surely we should not prevent poor immigrants from quadrupling their incomes simply to keep unskilled natives’ wages from stagnating temporarily?

In light of the well-documented plight of low-wage native workers today (Murray 2012; Putnam 2015; Case and Deaton 2020), I have found myself returning to this passage frequently. Should we care more about small predicted effects of immigration on the native poor? I am aware of the argument that immigration ought to be a win-win for unskilled natives and immigrants: a dynamic economy that is open to everyone can be good for everyone. Appropriate transfers, such as through funding for retraining or welfare payments, can compensate poor natives for lower incomes and lost work. Indeed, many government programmes have attempted to alleviate the plight of the unskilled working poor in just this way. Still, many unskilled natives do not think it has worked out in their favour. Their consumption may in fact be higher, but perhaps a better paying job would be better than a package of transfer payments. In the US and in some parts of Europe the effects of immigration on this native population appears to be fueling the rise of nationalist movements (Moriconi et al. 2018).

The plight of the native poor has many interrelated causes. Empirical evidence points to, for example, technological change, family breakdown, a failed education system and free trade. Of these, immigration may be the least important. Moreover, a restriction on immigration would not by itself improve the lot of working class natives. Immigration restrictions are often proposed as part of a larger programme (Cass 2018).[17]

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Conclusion – balancing obligations to gainers and possible losers from migration

Lest the empirical arguments distract us from the separate question of moral evaluation, I will state the question that we must address as a hypothetical: if we were to agree that immigration imposed costs on poor natives which cannot be adequately compensated through transfers and retraining, would we ever be justified in restricting immigration, even though the material benefits to poor immigrants were greater than the material costs to poor natives? We can only reach this conclusion if our poor, our unskilled, count for more in our deliberations than the poor and unskilled of other countries. Is it ever defensible to value the interests of our poor fellow citizens more than the interests of the poor from other places? What claims of solidarity and justice do our fellow citizens have on us and on our government relative to claims of justice and solidarity of foreigners? This is the question that goes unasked, both in Catholic social teaching and in immigration debates.

The common good of a country is not simply its aggregate income. If it were, economic efficiency would dictate open borders with appropriate transfer payments to the losers from immigration. The common good of a country includes the flourishing of all of its members, particularly the poorest. If some are struggling, the common good of the whole is not achieved. Aquinas (1948, II-II, 26) outlines an order in human charity – God first, followed by self, family and neighbour. The crucial question for citizens of developing countries is whether a neighbour who is a fellow citizen (or even a fellow resident non-citizen) is closer in the order of charity than a neighbour who lives in another country. If a country has a common good separate from some universal common good, then fellow citizens and residents should count for more. I do not know how much more, but more.

There is widespread hostility to arguments in support of policy preferences for fellow citizens: these preferences are often characterised as dangerously nationalistic, chauvinistic and bigoted. The cosmopolitan left condemns claims that there are trade-offs between the poor of different nations: they are regarded as distractions from the structural changes needed to lift up all the poor. Supporters of free trade, often characterised as being on the “right” of politics, dismiss pleas to protect “our poor” as mere smokescreens to mask a cynical struggle for inefficient restraints on trade. Both sides assert that the proposed trade-off between immigrant and native poor is illusory and need not be faced squarely.

Catholic social teaching offers some help in thinking through this conflict, but the tone of the teaching is highly suspicious of national common goods.[18] The Compendium (170) acknowledges the moral weight of a nation’s common good, but warns that it must not be closed to the broader common good among nations and peoples. In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis explores the conflict in some detail. He asserts that the common good balances a love for one’s native land and a generous openness to those outside one’s borders (FT, 142-142). Nevertheless, like his predecessors he is swift to warn against a “xenophobic mentality” (39), “ancestral” fears” (27), an “instinct for self-defense” (41), and “local narcissism” (146).

There are four reasons for the ambivalence of the Catholic Church towards national common goods. Firstly, the nation-state was born in conflict with the Church, and is buttressed by political philosophies in which an aggregate of individual interests or a general will supplant the idea of a common good. Secondly, there is ample ground for suspicion about the nation-state. Nationalism in combination with ideology has generated wars, discrimination and untold suffering. The Catholic human rights tradition developed to defend human dignity from the state. In addition, the Catholic Church is universal: it is not bounded by any state, and has a common good that embraces all of humanity and creation. Consequently, immigrants who fall between national borders rank high among the concerns of the Church (EG, 210).

A further reason that Catholic social teaching is somewhat mute on the trade-offs between the well-being of poor migrants and the well-being of unskilled natives is an implicit assumption that there need be no trade-off if host nations were fully committed to their own and the universal common good. Catholic social teaching is optimistic, assuming that people of goodwill, with converted hearts and minds, can adequately address most social problems. If developed countries were governed according to the principles of Catholic social teaching, they would be able to both welcome large numbers of poor immigrants and at the same time address the unequal burdens of immigration in a just way.

Nevertheless, finite and fallen human beings often fall short, and are unable to satisfy fully the demands of justice and charity. What if even people of goodwill can address the inequities in developed countries only imperfectly? Alternatively, what if developed countries fail to address these inequalities, through neglect or indifference? In either case, immigration may pit the interests of poor migrants against those of the native poor. Catholic social teaching offers little guidance for second-best scenarios like this.

The benefits to poor migrants of moving to the developed world are enormous. These benefits are not just material. In the face of this, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that developed countries should embrace mass immigration, even if it imposes burdens on the native poor. This is a powerful argument, but perhaps the native poor deserve more consideration from their fellow citizens. We need to hear more from Catholic social teaching on the demands of national common goods – on reasonable attachments to our fellow citizens – so we can address the challenges of choosing second-best solutions in relation to migration in an imperfect world.

The Church’s suspicion of unhealthy nationalism is justified, but an instinctive rejection of all claims of the importance of nationhood and patriotism can be dangerous and destabilising: communities are built up from the bottom, starting with the family. The Church should engage, challenge and encourage anyone making reasoned, humane arguments in favour of the autonomy of the nation state and for particular obligations towards fellow citizens (Hazony 2018; Cass 2018; Reno 2019). Such people are claiming intellectual ground from autocratic populists who appeal to nationalism and the bonds of citizenship for illiberal and inhumane ends. If the appeals of the autocrats are not balanced by reflection on a healthier respect for the nation, the autocrats may continue to gain strength. Catholic social teaching should weigh in on this debate.

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References and further reading for this unit

Aquinas, T. (1948), Summa Theologica, Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, New York: Benziger Brothers.

Blau, F. and C. Mackie, eds. (2017), The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Borjas, G. (2006), Immigration in High-Skill Labor Markets: The Impact of Foreign Students on the Earnings of Doctorates, NBER Working Paper No. 12085, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Borjas, G. (2016), We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative, New York: W.W. Norton.

Borjas, G. (2019), Immigration and Economic Growth, NBER Working Paper 25836, Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Burchardi, K., T. Chaney, T. Hassan, L. Tarquinio, and S. Terry (2020), Immigration, Innovation, and Growth, NBER Working Paper 27075, Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Butcher, K. and A. Piehl (2007), Why Are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation, NBER Working Paper 13229, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Case, A. and A. Deaton (2020), Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Caselli, F. and J. Feyrer (2007), The Marginal Product of Capital, Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(2): 535–568.

Cass, O. (2018), The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, New York: Encounter Books.

Clemens, M. (2011), Economics and Emigration: Trillion-dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?, Journal of Economic Perspectives 25(3): 83–106.

Clemens, M., C. Montenegro, and L. Pritchett (2008), The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers Across the US Border, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4671, Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Finnis, J. (2019), “Globalization” in Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays, ed. G. Bradley and E. Brugger, pp. 316-344, Cambridge.

Giuliano, P. and M. Tabellini (2020), The Seeds of Ideology: Historical Immigration and Political Preferences in the United States, NBER Working Paper 27238, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Goodhart, D. (2017), The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, London: C. Hurst and Company.

Hazony, Y. (2018), The Virtue of Nationalism, New York: Basic Books.

Jacks, D. and J. Tang (2018), Trade and Immigration 1870-2010, NBER Working Paper 25010, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kennan, J. (2013), Open Borders, Review of Economic Dynamics 16: L1-L13.

Kennan, J. (2017), Open Borders in the European Union and Beyond: Migration Flows and Labor Market Implications, NBER Working Paper 23048, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Moriconi, S., G. Peri, and R. Turati (2018), Skill of the Immigrants and Vote of the Natives: Immigration and nationalism in European Elections 2007-2016, NBER Working Paper 25077, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Murray, C. (2012), Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, New York: Crown Publishing.

Olson, M. (1996), Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk: Why Some Nations Are Rich, and Others Poor, Journal of Economic Perspectives 10(2): 3-24.

Peri, G., K. Shih, and C. Sparber (2015), STEM workers, H1B visas, and productivity in U.S. cities, Journal of Labor Economics 33(S1 Part 2): S225-S255.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2004). Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Powell, B., ed. (2015). The Economics of Immigration: Market-based Approaches, Social Policy, and Public Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. (2015), Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Reno, R.R. (2019), The Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, New York: Regnery Gateway.

Smith, J. and B. Edmonston, eds. (1997), The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Yuengert, A. M. (2004), Inhabiting the Land: The Case for the Right to Migrate, Christian Social Thought Series, no. 6, Acton Institute; Grand Rapids, MI.

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Papal encyclicals and other Church documents referred to in this unit

Francis, 2020, Fratelli tutti, encyclical letter :

Francis, 2019, Message for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019

Francis, 2018, Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018

Francis, 2015, Message for 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2015

Francis, 2014, Message World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2014

Francis, 2013, Evangelii gaudium, apostolic exhortation:

Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2013

Benedict XVI, 2011, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2011

John Paul II, 2004, Message for 90th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2004

John Paul II, 2001, Message for the 87th World Day of Migration 2001

John Paul II, 1998, Message for World Day of Migration 1998:

John Paul II, 1993, Message for World Day of Migration 1993

John Paul II, 1987, Sollicitudo rei socialis, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1981, Laborem exercens, encyclical letter: /john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html

John Paul II, 1978, Letter “To the People of Poland”

Paul VI, 1967, Populorum progressio, encyclical letter:

John XXIII, 1963, Pacem in terris, encyclical letter:

John XXIII, 1961, Mater et magistra, encyclical letter:

Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum novarum, encyclical letter:

Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 1965, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World,

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Questions for discussion

Discuss this proposition: Catholic social teaching suggests an absolute right to migrate but not an absolute duty on all nations to accept all migrants.

How did Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti balance the rights of nations to regulate their own borders to promote the common good within a particular country and the rights of migrants to settle in other countries?

Who are the gainers from migration and what changes might reduce the pressure to migrate from poorer countries?

Are there any losers from migration and, if so, what might we do to address any concerns they may have?

What is the justification in Catholic social teaching for the right to migrate?

What does Catholic social teaching and scripture tell us about how the individual, the community and the Church should treat migrants?

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[1] In this chapter, papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and similar documents will be given their title in the first reference and then cited by their initials. Messages for World Day for Migrants or World Day for Migrants and Refugees will be described by the initials WDM and WDMR followed by the date throughout.

[2] Many on the free-market right share the left’s effectively open-border objective (Powell, 2015).

[3] A new emphasis on high-skill immigrants reflects a general trend in immigration policy discussions toward “improving” the immigrant inflow. Any shift of immigration policy toward skilled immigration and away from unskilled creates a potential conflict with the third principle of Catholic social teaching, that the rights of poor immigrants are paramount.

[4] That is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, hereafter denoted by “the Compendium”.

[5] John Paul II lists the universal rights at stake in migration, each closely tied to place and community. For example, …the right to have one’s own country, to live freely in one’s own country, to live together with one’s family,… to preserve and develop one’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage” (WDM, 2001, 3).

[6] John Paul II ties the right to migrate to a “right not to emigrate” (WDMR, 2004, 3).

[7] See also WDMR, 2004 3, WDMR, 2014, WDMR, 2015.

[8] The Gettysburg Address.

[9] This is not to deny that immigration has political effects. Giuliano and Tabellini (2020) provide evidence that large immigrations have shifted the U.S. leftward politically in the past.

[10] Blau and Mackie (2017, pp. 461-462) emphasise crucial assumptions about the long-term budget outlook, the allocation of sunk costs to the “cost” of an immigrant, and the socio-economic characteristics of new immigrants.

[11] There is a further complex twist to this argument which is important. Migrants can reduce the current fiscal burden on the native population by sharing the debt amongst more people. Migration also slows the ageing of the population and the fiscal burdens that come with that process.

[12] Some studies find a negative effect on the wages of highly-skilled natives who compete most directly against the highly-skilled immigrants. See Borjas (2006).

[13] Negative effects on wages might also be reduced (or, indeed, reversed) by the influx of new, complementary entrepreneurial ideas that increase the demand for labour, reduce the cost of goods and services or increase the quality or variety of goods and services.

[14] Table 1, fourth and fifth columns. Kennan takes his estimates from Clemens et al. (2008).

[15] There is abundant economic evidence on this point. However, perhaps more compelling than the books and academic journal articles that have been written about the subject is this Ted talk which narrates the personal experience of Magatte Wade and those she tries to employ in Senegal:

[16] Clemens (2011) estimates that “the emigration of less than 5 percent of the population of poor regions would bring global gains exceeding the gains from total elimination of all policy barriers to merchandise trade and all barriers to capital flows” (p. 84). See Kennan (2013, 2017) for similarly large estimated effects.

[17] Jacks and Tang (2018) document a close connection between trade and immigration.

[18] See, for example, Pope John Paul II’s address to the People of Poland:

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Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

About the author

Andrew M. Yuengert is Professor of Economics in Seaver College at Pepperdine University. He received his economics from Yale University, and he been the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University, assistant professor of economics at Bates College, and research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Andrew is a former president of the Association of Christian Economists. He is a contributor to numerous scholarly books and journals, including as author of the books: “The Boundaries of Technique: Ordering Positive and Normative Concerns in Economic Research” and “Inhabiting the Land: The Case for the Right to Migrate”.

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