Acton Institute Powerblog

The Ethics of Immigration

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Sure to be a significant issue in the presidential campaign going forward, the question of immigration reform continues to divide otherwise like-minded religious folks. Mirror of Justice sage Michael Scaperlanda penned an article on the subject for First Things in February. A raft of letters upset with what the writers deemed Scaperlanda’s unreasonably lenient view toward illegal immigrants followed in the May issue (not accessible to non-subscribers), along with an article-length exchange between Scaperlanda and attorney William Chip. Scaperlanda’s initial article as well as part of the subsequent debate revolves around statements made by Catholic bishops on the subject.

Scaperlanda wants to see tighter borders in the sense of eliminating illegal immigration, but he also advocates a path to citizenship for currently illegal residents as well as a significant expansion of immigration quotas. Chip thinks large numbers of immigrants depress American wages and observes that most illegal migrants (specifically, Mexicans) are gainfully employed in their native country and not as desperately poor as they are sometimes portrayed.

Both Chip and Scaperlanda make valid points. The former on the possibility of enforcing the law:

The specter of mass arrests and deportations is a red herring. Approximately 500,000 aliens legally cross the border every day. They come to shop or to sightsee, to attend university, to conduct business, to work for an embassy, or to fill a temporary job. If we are to enjoy the benefits of these international visits without being overwhelmed by overstayers, it should be obvious that we cannot depend on the “hard power” of arrest and deportation except as a last resort.

We depend instead on the “soft power” of allowing legal visitors the means of a comfortable but temporary stay (including free emergency medical care if they ­cannot afford to pay for it) while withholding from them the means of taking up a comfortable permanent residence. Denying aliens who are not eligible for permanent residence the opportunity to hold a regular job, to drive a car, to draw nonemergency public benefits, and so forth is such an effective deterrent to breaking the law that 99.8 percent of aliens who enter the country each year return home of their own accord.

And Scaperlanda (in his response to the letters):

One commonly held myth is that illegal immigrants have cut in line ahead of others who are patiently waiting their turn to immigrate to the United States. In reality, no line exists for the vast majority of illegal entrants. The United States grants five thousand immigrant employment visas annually to low-skilled workers worldwide. Currently, we have more than ten million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. If they lined up today, and if we allotted all five thousand spots to Mexico and Central America, the one millionth would be eligible to receive a visa in the year 2208, and the ten millionth in 3008.

But the key question on which the debate hinges, it seems to me, is whether the United States possesses the economic capacity (and hence, for Christians and others who share a common moral view, responsibility) to sustain large numbers of immigrants. On this point, Scaperlanda finds that the evidence suggests that the answer is affirmative. I’m inclined to agree.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • zeezil

    After careful review, anyone with a even a modicum of logic can come to no other conclusion: illegal immigration must be halted, illegal immigrants here now must be deported and legal immigration needs decreased from the approx. 2 million allowed in per year currently.

    Please review the following report on the FISCAL COST OF IMMIGRATION by economist Edwin Rubenstein just released this past week:

    A partial summary of the report:

    The impact on 15 Federal Departments surveyed was: $346 billion in fiscal related costs in FY 2007.

    Each immigrant cost taxpayers more than $9,000 per year.

    An immigrant household (2 adults, 2 children) cost taxpayers $36,000 per year.

    Legal immigrants were not separated out from illegal immigrants for the fiscal impact study, but if they had been, the fiscal cost per ILLEGAL immigrant would be even more shocking than the figures quoted above.

    The most extensive and authoritative study, prior to economist Edwin Rubenstein’s “The Fiscal Impact of Immigration” (April 2008) , is the National Research Council (NRC)’s The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (1997).

    The NRC staff analyzed federal, state, and local government expenditures on programs such as Medicaid, AFDC (now TANF), and SSI, as well as the cost of educating immigrants’ foreign- and native-born children.

    NRC found that the average immigrant household receives $13,326 in federal annual expenditures and pays $10,664 in federal taxes—that is, they generate a fiscal deficit of $2,682 (1996 dollars)per household.

    In 2007 dollars this is a deficit of $3,408 per immigrant household.

    With 9 million households currently headed by immigrants, more than $30 billion ($3,408 x 9 million) of the federal deficit represents money transferred from native taxpayers to immigrants.

    Our national immigration policies have to work for the United States. While improving the plight of the world’s poor is a laudable goal, the finite resources we have available to fulfill that goal would be swamped if there wasn’t some orderly and manageable system in place to limit entry into the United States to what this nation can actually support. The more illegal aliens that are permitted to subvert the immigration system, the fewer immigrants we can accommodate who might actually produce a positive benefit for our country.

    The more we become a nation of illegal immigrants, the deeper we fall into anarchy.

  • zeezil

    “Amen, amen I say to you: He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1)

  • Although I look at this from a British immigration stance I have to say I’m inclined to agree with you and Scaperlanda and may I commend you on the moderated tone of your article.
    Immigration and illegal immigration – the two are separate topics imho – requires a much greater depth of understanding if we are to collectively make the correct decisions – thank you for furthering that understanding.

  • Douglas Smith

    Mr Schmiesing says he agrees with Scaperlanda that the US should sustain a large of number of immigrants, including illegal immigrants since that was a focus of the article. He also suggests that Christians have a moral responsibility to do so. But who’s going to do the sustaining?

    Christian compassion prompts individuals and organisations to put their money where their mouths are and sustain such causes themselves. Socialists (big government thinkers, Right or Left) believe in forcing others to bear the burdens they agree with.

    This is why general agreements about public issues disturb me, especially when they include the words _Christian,_ _moral responsibility_ and such.

  • Kevin

    To be clear, by “economic capacity to sustain,” I meant to refer to the question of whether the US economy can absorb high numbers of immigrants. It’s a reference to the debate about whether immigrants, on net, contribute to or subtract from GDP, and how much. It was not a reference to supporting immigrants directly–via the welfare state or private charity–which is a separate question.

  • Richard

    There ought to be protest marches in the streets. (much as illegals engage in).
    The truth is most americans are scared, feel guilty, are too content with their own lives. The melting pot is our strength, and our weakness.
    There is no unity. Cannot be unity on any issue.
    The politicans are entirely corrupt on this matter.

  • Ron


    Liberals in Congress say that we’re in a recession and that we’re losing jobs. Their solution for this is to give amnesty to 20 million illegal aliens so they can hold jobs needed by American citizens. They say that we can’t capture and deport all of them, but that is incorrect. We can get rid of all of them.

    Develop a website called “Illegal Aliens” in which we document them in every way. Photograph, fingerprint, DNA profile, etc. and include a rap sheet for each and every one. The rap sheet would start off with the offense of illegal entry. More serious crimes would follow on the rap sheets. Anyone on this website would be prohibited from receiving any benefits such as visas for citizenship.

    Have ICE announce in English and Spanish that, in fifteen days, they will begin paying a bounty to any American citizen for each and every illegal alien they turn in. All illegal aliens turned in would be put in the “Illegal Aliens” website. Ones that want to become legal would leave the country in the fifteen-day period.

    Bring home our soldiers and equipment from FDR’s War, before they are surrounded by the Islamo-fascist-terrorist murderers that are overrunning Britain, Germany, and France. Have the infantry round up and deport the millions of illegal aliens. Have our tanks and helicopters patrol our borders, firing on the Mexican army trucks that escort drug dealers and fire on our border patrol people. Have the Army Engineers build the wall along our border. Fund this with the billions of dollars presently paid out to protect Germany.

    Have our soldiers put illegal aliens in metal cages that will fit in C130 Starlifter aircraft. Fly them south, until they are in line with the southern border of Mexico, and drop the cages to parachute to the ground as far from the United States as possible.

    Enforce existing law, and deport all illegal aliens arrested by police in all levels of government. Deprive illegal aliens of jobs and homes. Fine and imprison persons who hire illegal aliens. Fine and imprison persons who rent homes to illegal aliens.

    Make Spanish-language radio and TV broadcasts and ads in newspapers saying, “Mexican illegal aliens, Go Home. Return to your homeland and make it your own. Get rid of the corrupt politicians in the government. Get rid of the gangsters. Use the money received from oil sales and other sources to build schools to educate your children and provide jobs. American entrepreneurs will help you set up businesses and provide jobs for your people. Remember, too, that it is not macho to have a wife that is always pregnant and sick, and many children that are underfed, wearing rags, living in a shack, and uneducated. Macho is two healthy, happy, well-fed, well-housed, educated children and a wife who is the same. There are millions of you. Go home and make Mexico the place where you want to live and work.”

  • Harry

    As Christians we should have personal compassion for any one seeking a better life for himself or his family; however, we must also realize that public policy has to be made to protect our borders, our security, and our economy. Our taxes only provide an infrastructure for projected numbers of households.
    I feel this is a part of Global Free Trade to lower wages in the U.S. as part of the North American Union. Fines on employers and deportation on discovery, will over time reverse the trend. Amnesty only leads to license.

  • Patrick

    I have no doubt that the great economic engine that is the U.S. can sustain massive immigration. My concern is whether the American social and cultural structures, already weakened by three decades of leftist activism, can sustain it. Bill Bennett once said that he didn’t worry about what immigrants would do to the U.S. as much as what the U.S. would do to immigrants. I think what he meant was that most immigrants come for the purpose of bettering their lives and participating in the American dream. Unfortunately, it looks like the dominant culture has deteriorated to the point where it is difficult for immigrants to be acculturated into American society and to adopt American values. The public school system, the universities, the unions, and the welfare state have lined up as a barrier to the Americanization of immigrants. While the spirit of immigrants is strong, I am not sure they can overcome these obstacles in the long run, at least not on such a massive scale.

  • Anonymous

    Lets try Occam’s razor shall we? If y’all reproduce yourselves you have a right to defend the two acres for foraging to feed the four mouths you and your spouse bring into the world. Otherwise you’ll need to ask someone else and her spouse to raise the kids who are going to fight for you in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintain the highways and airways that carry the trade goods you consume in WalMart, nurse you in sickness and bury you in death…

    and if they aren’t breeding here ‘cos the OBGyns can’t afford professional liability insurance, well why not a few babies raised over the border, eh? Cheap at the price, we didn’t have to pay property taxes to educate ’em or pay out SSU benefits to let ’em retire (I am a resident alien taxpayer, who when widowed will relocate to my home the UK since I am not entitled to a cent of my husbands contributions to the social contract, all fair in love and war, right?)

  • Clare Krishan

    Oops missing attribution, that was me.

    Note also every immigrant that imbibes the American Way could be contributing to a better world, or not, as the case may be:

    “Transforming globalisation into a “civilisation of the common good” — To reach this goal, a new integration of subsidiarity and solidarity is needed. The topic is under discussion beginning today at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. “

  • Ali

    Scaperlanda said:”The United States grants five thousand immigrant employment visas annually to low-skilled workers worldwide. Currently, we have more than ten million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. If they lined up today, and if we allotted all five thousand spots to Mexico and Central America, the one millionth would be eligible to receive a visa in the year 2208, and the ten millionth in 3008.”

    The United States also offers a virtually unlimited number of visas under FAMILY REUNIFICATION. Last year we admitted 1 million LEGAL immigrants most of them under this program and roughly 15-20 percent of them from ONE COUNTRY, MEXICO. Even though they’re admitted under family preferences, they’re still able to work, and many are unskilled and poorly educated. You might also note that the sponsoring families of these workers are responsible for them financially. Who would select unskilled workers to come here legally? On what basis? Unskilled workers are by definition interchangeable. And who would be responsible for them? Employers don’t even want to be responsible for temporary workers hired on guest worker programs. We’d probably end up with employers sponsoring family members under the guise of work. Mr. Li, for example, hiring relatives to work in his restaurant.

  • William Garland

    I think Ali’s point is well made for there are many different classes of visas for immigrants, not just the 5,000 for the unskilled.
    We must also face the fact that a plurality of illegal aliens come from Mexico and that country follows a deliberate policy of encouraging violation of our immigtration laws for its own economic gain since its second largest source of foreign exchange is remittances from its citizens abroad. Mexico has over half the billionaires residing in the Americas south of the US, and these persons pay less in effective taxation than US middle class taxpayers. Mexico has a duty to devote its assets to the care of its citizens and not foist that responsibility on the US.
    We should adopt a Canadian type system which allows in as immigrants those whose skills are needed.

  • Well William,

    Right now I need another bricklayer and a person to watch my son so he doesn’t crawl into the mortar rotating around in my back yard.

    I do not need a pinhead in Washington deciding what skills are need for the economy.

    I am perfectly capable of deciding what skills I need, as most people will work depending upon how much they are paid, you can usually strike a deal on labor in exchange for money….even without a “Canadian type system”.


  • William Garland

    Mr. Powers,
    If you dislike a system which attempts to match immigration with skills needed in the workforce in an effort to insure immigrants are employed and not public charges, are you willing to assume responsibility for those whom you would prefer so that they will not become taxpayer burdens?

  • I actually like a system that matches workers to the needs of the market. It is very radical, but has turned out pretty well over the years. It is called Captialism.

    As I mention, you can usually make a deal on receiving labor in exchange for money. I do not like the idea of having to lobby Washington to get bricks laid in my patio. I would rather just pay the mason.

    I typically don’t assume much responsibility for the welfare state, as it is again managed by politicians rather than benevolent humans. I do a decent amount of charitable work, and take my social responsibilities quite seriously, generally without consulting a single Canadian.


  • John Snape

    Illegal aliens MUST be removed, We consider ourselves a nation of law keepers. we cannot allow SOME people to break our laws with immunity. While’ at the same time insisting that legal citizens keep the law.
    We can not have it both ways, either laws are important or they are not. I feel that the law should be obeyed.
    If more immigrations is needed loosen the restriction on legal immigration. GET RID OF THE ILLEGAL ALIENS, they are not wanted or needed.

  • “we cannot allow SOME people to break our laws with immunity” Why not? We allow drivers to break the speed limit, and there is generally no harm. Vast numbers of people in the United States refuse to pay sales tax on out of state purchases, despite the law requiring them to do so.

    Many laws are not that important. Others are important. Sensible people can make the judgment of the difference.