Deportation: A Moral Morass

July-August 2017


Deportation-A Moral Morass
Alex Nabaum

Catholics, from Pope Francis to bishops, theologians and the faithful, have responded to the increasing hostility towards immigrants and refugees worldwide. In the United States, significant shifts in policy affecting immigrants and those seeking safe and permanent refuge sparked Catholic reaction from multiple sources.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration voiced strong disagreement with President Donald J. Trump's Jan. 27, 2017, executive order temporarily halting travel visas and blocking admission of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The order also stopped resettlement of Syrian refugees. The USCCB pledged redoubled support and assistance for resettling the most vulnerable.1

A court challenge stopped the January 27 executive order from taking effect, and the White House then rewrote the order to address the legal issues raised. Citing the need to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks, Trump signed the second travel and immigration ban on March 6, 2017. It, too, was challenged in court and is caught up in legal proceedings.

Theologians have denounced the policies as morally unjust and in violation of Christian ethics and human rights.2 They appealed to Scripture's command to welcome the stranger and the Judeo-Christian understanding that inviolable human dignity flows from God creating us in God's own image and likeness.

A strong message came from Chicago's Cardinal Blase J. Cupich when he decried the policies as "a dark moment in U.S. history." He asked, "Have we not repeated the disastrous decisions of those in the past who turned away their people fleeing violence, leaving certain ethnicities and religions marginalized and excluded?"3

Similarly, Newark's Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, referenced Scripture and stated, "Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities."4

Cardinal Tobin's statement echoes a particular line from the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes. The council specifically identifies deportation among a list of actions insulting human dignity, alongside such morally reprehensible acts as slavery, prostitution and the selling of women and children.5 "All of these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society…"

Was it the threat of mass deportations and the outright prejudice against Muslims that prompted some Catholic voices?6 The Catholic moral tradition has identified deportation — not simply mass deportation — with strong, morally objectionable language. Yet, Catholic voices were conspicuously muted if not silent, while President Barack Obama deported more persons than any other president in U.S. history.7

Pope John Paul II condemned deportation in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. The encyclical not only repeats the list from Gaudium et Spes of actions that denigrate life, but the pontiff further heightens their moral gravity by labeling them as intrinsic evils.8 The return of the complex theological term "intrinsic evil," as well as the encyclical itself, has been vociferously debated.9 Detangling the encyclical's methodologies and interpretations is beyond the scope of this brief article. Yet, an honest and critical theological engagement with immigration issues must contend with this aspect of the tradition.

Moral theologians and social and health care ethicists need to bring a deeper and more nuanced theological understanding to the current policies, rhetoric and social realities on deportation and immigration. Why would deportation be considered an intrinsic evil? What are the shortcomings and benefits of emphasizing this? What possible conditions would make it permissible?

Bishop Daniel E. Flores, in the border diocese of Brownsville, Texas, adamantly argues that mass deportation policies are "formal cooperation with an intrinsic evil," akin to bringing a woman to an abortion clinic.10 He argues that sending people to parts of Mexico and Central America would place them in proximate danger of death.

Not only is the term "intrinsic evil" fraught with difficulties, but it sharply contrasts with Pope Francis' emphasis on pastoral sensibility and his theology of mercy. Cardinal Tobin demonstrated an alternative way of addressing the dehumanizing effects of deportation when, in March 2017, he led a group of clergy in accompanying an unauthorized immigrant to his deportation hearing at the Newark courthouse.11 The immigrant, who has lived more than a quarter-century in the U.S. and has no criminal record, received a one-year reprieve.12

The Catholic tradition's moral objections to deportation is but one side of the coin. The positive counterbalance is the tradition's clear affirmation of the human right to migrate. The appeal to human rights is conspicuously missing in the current discourse, even among recent bishops' statements.

Pope John XXIII used human rights to ground his thinking on social justice. In addition to naming medical care and the right to be looked after in times of ill health, disability, loss of a spouse and old age, his encyclical Pacem in Terris recognizes a basic right to migrate. The pontiff wrote, "every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there."13

He articulates additional and specific rights for refugees. Their profound suffering merits special concern. Thus, the pope honors a refugee's right "to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and — so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits — to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society."14 The pontiff argues for these and other human rights from a perspective of an ordered universe in which all is given by the Creator.

Although the papal encyclical tradition acknowledges distinct rights of immigrants and refugees, a palpable xenophobia in some corners of American society thwarts an appreciation for the lived experience, in fact, the suffering, of these women, children and men. The voicelessness of vulnerable others creates a compelling need for theologians, pastoral ministers and leaders in the church's ministries to speak from the depths of the Catholic moral and social tradition to these current challenges.

Scholarship and public discourse must carefully distinguish situations of unauthorized immigration from that of refugees. Those recognized by the international community as refugees due to the dire situations in their original homelands ought to receive timely safety and resettlement.

A second and related matter pertains to language. We are talking about human persons, not "aliens." Persons relate to creation, community and solidarity — concepts that merit greater attention in discussions on deportation and immigration.15 Furthermore, employing the term "illegal" suggests, rightly or not, that the civil laws themselves are just.16

Third, 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.17 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?

Fourth, renewed scholarship on the rights of persons to migrate can enlighten the discourse. Multiple pressures can prompt fleeing one's homeland: political persecution, exploitation, war and violence, starvation, climate change, economic and financial motives, or family reunification. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church links immigration and work. As seen in the U.S., immigrants provide labor that would otherwise remain unfulfilled.18

Here are some questions that merit study and discussion: How does the right to free human movement correlate and conflict with the Catholic social tradition's recognized right to labor, to a just living wage, to private property and a state's obligation to regulate rights in service to the common good? Moreover, many voices object to unauthorized immigration on the grounds of national sovereignty and a state's duty to protect itself. What are morally acceptable rights to protect a national border? What responsibilities correlate to the individual's right to migrate?

Exploring these questions leads to possible examples of just and unjust deportation. A migrant worker who violates the parameters of a work agreement may justly be deported. However, we must argue for and articulate a moral imperative to cease deportations of (and threats to deport) unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. They must not bear the devastating and dehumanizing consequences of actions for which they had neither capacity nor freedom to choose. Moreover, such women and men deserve a reasonably unencumbered means to authorized residency, if not citizenship.

Conditions and applied rights to authorized residency, if not citizenship, are needed for individuals who have years of residency, who have been contributing to society and their families, and who have no criminal record. Civil law recognizes adverse possession with regard to property — also known as squatters' rights. It seems even more critical and dignified for human persons to have an analogous process. Deporting long-term residents may be morally unjustified. Cardinal Tobin suggested as much in his public statements.

Catholic health care in the U.S. began with women and men religious — immigrants themselves — centuries ago. Today, more than ever, it is essential for our healing ministries to be an unequivocal place of welcome and respite. We must continue advocating for access to care for immigrants. One Catholic medical school, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, has taken a prophetic step in admitting immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival status — often called "Dreamers."19 (see story on page 14). Upon completing their medical training, will these talented doctors find welcome in Catholic health ministries or other institutions?20

Some bioethicists have grappled with expensive medical treatments for undocumented immigrants. Catholic health care ethicists have pondered the moral permissibility and limits of medical repatriation — that is, returning an immigrant (and usually undocumented) patient to his or her home country because the patient needs long-term medical care that won't be reimbursed.21 Their analyses didn't differentiate medical repatriation from deportation.

Does coercion lurk in the background of an informed consent to being returned to another county? Bioethicist Mark Kuczewski proposed three narrow criteria that must be met for a hospital to morally pursue medical repatriation as the care plan for an unauthorized immigrant who needs ongoing, advanced medical support.22 Legally or otherwise, at what point does one, realistically, no longer belong to one's former country?

In less extreme situations, Catholic and other nonprofit hospitals routinely provide charity care for immigrants ineligible for most health coverage programs. But how ought Catholic ministries react if federal agents seek to remove a hospital patient with unauthorized immigration status? Does a Catholic hospital participate in moral wrongdoing if it cooperates or remains complicit?

Catholic social teaching's foundation in human dignity and solidarity forms a bedrock that seems to significantly limit moral justifications for deportation. The wisdom of the Second Vatican Council noted that greater harm comes to those who practice deportation and related injustices than to those who suffer its injury.23 Those deported and their families would likely disagree. Much work remains to foster a social consciousness that aches for the griefs and anxieties of others, especially those separated from their home and culture, yet striving to reestablish new homes and stabilize their families. With the help of the Catholic social and moral traditions, and Catholic health care's vision of holistic care, we can fortify the structures to help immigrant persons flourish in a different location within Creation.

DARREN M. HENSON is regional officer for mission and ethics at Presence Health, Chicago.



  1. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "USCCB Committee on Migration Chair Strongly Opposes Executive Order Because It Harms Vulnerable Refugee and Immigrant Families," news release, Jan. 27, 2017. www.usccb.org/news/2017/17-026.cfm.
  2. Statement of the Catholic Theological Society of America Board of Directors on Refugees and Migration, Jan. 31, 2017. http://s3.amazonaws.com/berkley-center/170131CatholicTheologicalSocietyAmericaBoardDirectorsStatementRefugeesMigration.pdf.
  3. Archdiocese of Chicago, "Statement of Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, on the Executive Order on Refugees and Migrants," Jan. 29, 2017. www.archchicago.org/statements/-/asset_publisher/a2jOvEeHcvDT/content/statement-statement-of-cardinal-blase-j-cupich-archbishop-of-chicago-on-the-executive-order-on-refugees-and-migrants?inher.
  4. Archdiocese of Newark, "Statement of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, On Wednesday's Executive Actions on Immigration," Jan. 27, 2017. www.rcan.org/statement-cardinal-joseph-w-tobin-cssr-wednesday's-executive-actions-immigration.
  5. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, par. 27. www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
  6. See, for example, Kate Morrissey, "Catholic Church Prepares to Fight 'Grave Evil' of Mass Deportations," The San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 30, 2016. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy voiced grave concern and "massive action," following the 2016 presidential election.
  7. United States Department of Homeland Security, 2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 39; www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table39.
  8. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, par. 80. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
  9. See for example, Charles E. Curran, The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005); Richard John Neuhaus et al., "The Splendor of Truth: A Symposium," First Things, Jan. 1, 1994; and Mary Elsbernd, "The Reinterpretation of Gaudium et Spes in Veritatis Splendor," Horizons 29, no. 2 (October 2002): 225–39.
  10. Charles C. Camosy, "Bishop Says Deporting Migrants 'Not Unlike' Abortion," Crux, July 26, 2016. https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2016/07/26/camosy-interview-bp-brownsville-tx/.
  11. David Porter, "Religious Leader Heads Effort to Help Man Facing Deportation," Associated Press story on U.S. News and World Report website, March 10, 2017; www.usnews.com/news/best-states/new-jersey/articles/2017-03-10/newark-archbishop-to-lead-rally-for-man-facing-deportation.
  12. Associated Press, "Man Gets Deportation Reprieve after Drawing Clergy Support," April 20, 2017. https://apnews.com/8fced4be1307408099401c3fa67ba5a6/new-jersey-man-avoids-deportation-case-drew-clergy-support.
  13. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, par. 25. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html.
  14. Pacem in Terris, par. 106.
  15. Francis, Laudato Si', par. 25. Pope Francis' environmental encyclical observes how climate change has caused people to migrate or has forced them out of their homes and into a status as unofficial refugees. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
  16. See, for example, this article by Fr. Thomas Berg, which omits the tradition's treatment of deportation. Thomas Berg, "Illegal Immigration and Catholic Social Teaching," With Good Reason, Catholic News Agency online blog, May 18, 2010. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/illegal-immigration-and-catholic-social-teaching-1231/.
  17. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church mentions mass deportations alongside genocides and new forms of slavery and trafficking. See par. 158. www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html.
  18. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 297-98.
  19. Mark G. Kuczewski and Linda Brubaker, "Medical Education as Mission: Why One Medical School Chose to Accept DREAMers," The Hastings Center Report, 43, no. 6 (Nov. 18, 2013): 21-24.
  20. Jeremy Raff, "What Will Happen to Undocumented Doctors?" Video by The Atlantic, February 2, 2017.
  21. John Paul Slosar, Mark F. Repenshek and Elliott Bedford, "Catholic Identity and Charity Care in the Era of Health Reform," HEC Forum 25, no. 2 (June 2013): 111–26.
  22. Mark Kuczewski, "Can Medical Repatriation Be Ethical? Establishing Best Practices," The American Journal of Bioethics, 12, no. 9 (2012): 1-5.
  23. Gaudium et Spes, par. 27.


Deportation-A Moral Morass

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