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Illegal Immigration and the Morality of Deportation

There seems to be a lot of evidence out there that the Church considers deportation inherently immoral. Let's take a closer look.

Trent Horn

Immigration is a complex issue, and the Church wisely rejects two false approaches to it. On the one hand, it affirms that people have a right to migrate, and so countries cannot absolutely prohibit immigration. On the other hand, the Church rejects the view that governments must allow anyone to enter and remain within their borders. This means that the right to immigrate can be legally restricted. The Catechism says, “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” (2241).

These conditions would entail that some people are not permitted to immigrate into a country, and, if they illegally do so anyway, they may face legal punishment, including being deported.

However, some Catholics claim the Church teaches that deportation is intrinsically evil. Rachel Amiri of Where Peter Is writes, “It is worth recalling that deportation is evil, and that Catholics affirm that all human beings possess a God-given right to migrate.”

Amiri cites an article in a journal affiliated with the Catholic Health Association of the United States: “The Catholic moral tradition has identified deportation — not simply mass deportation — with strong, morally objectionable language.” It cites the personal statements of some cardinals, but the only magisterial documents it cites are Veritatis Splendor and Gaudium et Spes.

In the former document, Pope John Paul II discusses the issue of intrinsic evils:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (80).

The pontiff then cites Gaudium et Spes to provide specific examples. That document says, in part, “Whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children” (27).

However, my colleague Jimmy Akin says Gaudium et Spes is probably not referring to every kind of expulsion of a person from a place or country. Instead, it is referring to mass deportations connected with evils like genocide. In this article, I will support Akin’s original argument by surveying how the Magisterium has used the word deportation over the past century.

As Akin notes, the Latin word deportatio used in Gaudium et Spes has the same basic range of meaning as the English word deport. As of this writing, the Vatican website listed ninety-one mentions of the English word deport in its document archive. This includes papal documents that possess a range of authority, such as encyclicals and general audiences. It also includes documents from other departments in the Vatican and exchanges with the pope at things like press conferences, which, while they do not have teaching authority, can help us better understand the pope’s thoughts on a certain issue.

For example, every mention of the word deport prior to Gaudium et Spes uses the word as a synonym for comportment, or as a way of conducting oneself. In his encyclical on education of the clergy, Pope Leo XIII said, “What sad effects would not arise if that gravity of conduct which belongs to the priest, should be in any way lessened . . . if he should deport himself with pretentious indocility towards his superiors” (Fin Dal Principio 6).

The issue of immigration was discussed prior to Vatican II without any teaching that deporting those who had illegally entered a country is intrinsically evil. In an address to members of the U.S. Senate, Pope Pius XII mentioned immigration from Europe due to the aftermath of the Second World War and said:

The question of immigration today however presents wholly new problems. As always the welfare of the country must be considered as well as the interest of the individual seeking to enter, and in the nature of things circumstances will at times dictate a law of restriction. But by the same token circumstances at time will almost cry out for an easing of the application of that law. Wise legislation will ever be conscious of humanity and the calamities, distress and woes to which it is heir.

The pope was probably referring to instances where countries like the United States refused entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, who were then murdered upon being returned to their homeland. But notice that Pius does not condemn deportation itself. He even acknowledges that restrictions on immigration will need to be made but that governments should mercifully consider exceptions to those restrictions in grave circumstances.

After Gaudium et Spes, the word deport occurs nearly ninety times in various documents. In seven cases it involves quoting Gaudium et Spes, and in twenty-five cases, it refers to biblical exiles like the Jews sent into Babylon in 586 B.C. or St. John’s exile on the island of Patmos. Most often, or in nearly fifty cases, the word refers to mass deportations that are part of an organized campaign to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing.

For example, it’s often used to refer to Nazi deportation to concentration camps, such as in Pope Francis’s address on the seventieth anniversary of the 1943 deportation of Jews from Rome to places like Auschwitz. Or in a 1978 address where Pope John Paul II said, “Courageous men must be sought not only on battlefields, but also in hospital wards or on a bed of pain. Such men could often be found in concentration camps or in places of deportation. They were real heroes.”

It’s also used to describe totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union that expelled dissenters into wilderness areas unfit for human habitation. In 2001, Pope John Paul II noted this transition from fascist persecution to communist persecution, saying, “Liberation from Nazism marked the return of a regime which continued to trample on the most elementary human rights, deporting defenseless citizens, imprisoning dissidents, persecuting believers, and even attempting to erase the very idea of freedom.”

After Pope Francis visited the former Soviet state of Estonia in 2018, he said during a press conference on the flight back to Rome, “I went to the monument to the memory of those who were condemned, killed, tortured, deported. That day—I’ll tell you the truth—I was destroyed.”

The Church’s compendium on social doctrine mentions deportation only once, and it also links it to genocide:

The solemn proclamation of human rights is contradicted by a painful reality of violations, wars and violence of every kind, in the first place, genocides and mass deportations, the spreading on a virtual worldwide dimension of ever new forms of slavery such as trafficking in human beings, child soldiers, the exploitation of workers, illegal drug trafficking, prostitution. “Even in countries with democratic forms of government, these rights are not always fully respected” (158).

Finally, the essay Amiri cites notes this connection in the Compendium and expresses doubt concerning the moral status of deportation. It says,

Theological scholarship must grapple with the Second Vatican Council’s mentioning of deportation, John Paul II’s identification of it as intrinsically evil and subsequent references to mass deportation. Might the qualification of “mass” deportation be akin to moral distinctions between direct and indirect abortion? If so, is this distinction sufficient, or does moral wrongdoing linger in at least some instances of deportation per se?

In the ninety-one references to the English word deport, I found only two instances where the word is mentioned in the context of expelling someone from a country because he has broken a law related to the immigration process. In both cases, the word is uttered by a reporter asking the pope a question.

In the first case, a reporter from Reuters asked the pope about then President Trump’s comments on deporting illegal aliens and building a border wall. The pope replied, in part,

A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever it may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. What you were asking me, whom to vote for or not: I won’t interfere. I only say: If a man says these things, he is not Christian. We have to see if he said these things, and thus I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

In this exchange, it’s not clear why the pope suggested that Trump might be “not Christian,” but it is clear that the pope doesn’t say deportation is intrinsically evil or even that it is evil in general.

More striking is a question the pope was asked during a flight from Colombia to Rome. In the context, the pope said it is important for young people to “find their roots” and their heritage. A reporter raised the issue of how “those young people can be deported from the United States.” Pope Francis then replied, “True enough, they lose a root. . . . It is a problem. But really, I don’t want to express an opinion on that case, because I have not read about it, and I don’t like to speak about something I haven’t first studied.”

Notice that in response to a question about deportation, the pope doesn’t immediately call it evil, but reserves judgment on the matter. This stands in contrast to his previously unabashed denunciations of intrinsic evils like abortion and euthanasia. Instead, he recognizes there could be mitigating circumstances that justify deporting at least some people from the United States—which means the pope does not think deportation is intrinsically evil since no circumstance can justify an intrinsic evil. Indeed, as Akin notes, in 1929, the Vatican signed an extradition treaty with Italy agreeing to return alleged criminals who sought refuge in the Holy See, which is not what we’d expect if all deportations were intrinsically evil.

But if deportation isn’t intrinsically evil, then why did Pope John Paul II list it as such in Veritatis Splendor? Cardinal Avery Dulles notes,

Individual deportations of undesirable aliens occur continually as a matter of national policy today; mass deportations could perhaps be necessary for the sake of peace and security. . . . If pressed, I suspect, the pope would have admitted the need for some qualifications, but he could not have specified these without a rather long excursus that would have been distracting in the framework of his encyclical.

In response, some defenders of the view that deportation is intrinsically evil say words like expulsion and extradition should be used to describe morally removing someone from a country, whereas deportation refers to immoral removal from a country. They say this is like how murder refers to immoral killing, whereas homicide can refer to morally ending a human life. But although the Church has distinguished the conditions that make killing licit (CCC 2263-2264), it has done no such thing when it comes to distinguishing moral and immoral forms of deportation.

Even the defenders of this view can’t provide an objective standard to determine which reasons justify deportation (for example, committing violent felonies) and which do not (for example, illegal entry after fleeing genocide in one’s home country). Instead, it has referenced only obviously immoral deportations and allows civil leaders to make prudential judgements about whether other kinds of deportations are just or unjust.

In conclusion, Catholics should continue to promote immigration policies that respect the right to migrate and treat migrants with compassion while also respecting the right of nations to maintain sovereign borders. This would include the right, in at least some circumstances, to deport people who illegally enter.

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