The two faces of immigration

Immigration is one of the thorny issues facing Americans today. It is particularly so for Catholics, since such a large percentage of the people who have come here in recent years are our co-religionists.

All Americans should be involved in the decision concerning what is the best path both for our nation and for the millions, maybe even a billion, of individuals that want, often desperately, to be part of our nation. And why wouldn't they want to be part of such a strong and prosperous nation?

Do the thought experiment: If you were a young man or woman, living in any number of countries that have no or limited freedom, and offer few economic opportunities, wouldn't you jump at the chance of living out your future in America? Particularly if you had a young family? Our guess is that literally hundreds of millions would pack up and head for our shores.

We are a large and prosperous country, but the question is, "How many?" How many can we assimilate into our economy and our democratic system, a way of life that has historically rested on an informed and responsible citizenry?

Wanting to be free, wanting a better way of life, and wanting the economic benefits that currently come with the American life is fine and natural. But our nation requires more if we are to preserve what we currently have. While immigrants often are a great benefit to the country, those who are unprepared to learn and to follow our laws and traditions represent a burden and a danger to the nation.

Our media today is filled with claims and debating points about immigration from arguments ranging from open borders to closed borders. The political Left appears to be championing aggressive immigration policies. As the party of Big Government, it sees more voters as more political power. Larger numbers mean more government, more services of all kinds, from more welfare to more public schooling. The political Right, the party of business, is pro-immigration because that means more cheap labor, lower wages and lower consumer costs. It means more young consumers for the products of American industry.

The leadership of our Church, from the Vatican to the American hierarchy, is urging more and more immigration of refugees. The case of endangered Christians in the Mideast is especially compelling. Some suggest that the Catholic bishops see the influx of immigrant Catholics from south of the border offsetting the loss of born-in-America Catholics who have been slipping out the back door of our churches.

As the immigration controversy comes to a boil, a perspective that deserves more attention comes under the heading of "the unintended consequences of immigration": first, on the family and, second, on the left-behind nation.

Behind these rosy and often guilt-provoking pro-immigration arguments is the thesis that America is the world's great incubator of talent and innovation -- that our welcoming the world's best and the brightest and most talented is a positive benefit for humanity at large. Opening our arms to the world's gifted scientific minds and most entrepreneurial spirits, and inviting them first to our universities and then on to our great industries means harnessing their talents to produce environmental and health breakthroughs that would not occur if these individuals stayed home.

A compelling scenario. But there is an alternative called "the U.S. as talent strip-miner" scenario, where the U.S. universities, acting as talent scouts of business, recruit the cream of poorer nations' talents, leaving them bereft of their potential contribution. This happens, of course, after the left-behind nation has made a huge investment to nurture and educate these individuals to the point that they are equipped to leave to be cogs in the service of the American business and industrial behemoths.

Besides the loss to the left-behind nations, there is, perhaps, a more serious loss: the loss to individual families and to the very institution of the family. Most serious sociologists recognize that the family is the fundamental building block of any society. There is much pious and sentimental talk about families, but the fact is that without sturdy family units the social order tends to collapse. The family is the keystone. As Yeats warned, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

Families foster new life and continue human existence. More important, they "civilize" that newborn, teaching a child the rules of the game: how to cooperate, fairness, give-and-take and, above all, self-control. The family, including sisters and brothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, are invested in a child's development as a successful and productive person.

When the young individuals and families of our earlier thought experiment depart to be part of the American Dream, the left-behind family is deprived of the support they deserve. They are weakened. In turn, their community and the nation loses its most precious resource: their gifts and talents. Annual visits home, bearing presents from the American abundance, is hardly enough.

Historically, the Catholic Church emphasized mission work over the mass movement of peoples. Mass immigration, by its very nature, causes instability to both the sending and receiving nations. The latter is highly disruptive and destabilizing for the host country as well as country of origin.

Our world is currently rocking with instability, as masses of people are being uprooted or uprooting themselves. While a foreign policy to welcome new comers speaks to both our generosity and economic self-interest, it may, indeed, be feeding larger and more devastating chaos just down the road. The glamorizing of disruption is probably the greatest bane given to us by today's economics.

As Christians and Americans, we need an immigration policy based on a larger vision of the common good, both our good and the good of those who seek to come to our shores. Let's do stability and nurture.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.