In their 2003 pastoral letter Strangers No Longer, the Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico insisted that a just and lasting solution to the migration issue will require us to “measure the interests of all parties” involved in or affected by migration in the light of the Church’s social teachings. This task will require both idealism and realism. It demands respect for the dignity of persons and the common good. It also requires attention both to the political, social, and economic conditions driving migrants to leave their homes and to the effects of migration on the communities that receive migrants.

Two recent essays argue that the elites driving US immigration policy are motivated by a one-sided idealism that endangers the common good. Writing in First Things, Matthew Schmitz criticizes the “immigration idealism” of political and religious leaders who imagine a world where no walls or fences are necessary. These idealists import a sentimental version of Christianity in which, to quote former US ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz, “the body of Christ knows and has no borders,” into the political realm.

Similarly, in an essay published at Public Discourse, Arthur Milikh excoriates immigration activists and academics who characterize concern for border enforcement as a type of unjust exclusion or discrimination. Milikh worries that this mindset lacks the sense of loyalty to a particular community necessary for democratic governance.

What Should Immigration Realism Look Like?

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Schmitz appeals to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr for a dose of realism. Just as Niebuhr challenged the naïve idealism of Christian pacifists in the years before the Second World War, Schmitz argues that, “in an imperfect world, peace must be protected by strength of arms, and welcoming the stranger entails preserving the society that might welcome him.” He therefore calls on his fellow citizens to defend the border with force.

Niebuhr’s critique of liberal idealism, however, was more than a call to be tough-minded. According to Niebuhr, social groups tend to construct narratives that cloak their self-interest in moral sentiment, justifying the imposition of their will on the supposedly wicked and wrong-headed. This tendency is rooted in the sin of pride, which he identifies as the failure to recognize the limitations that come with being human. We are tempted to identify our own perceptions with the totality of reality and our self-interest with the unqualified good.

Though he denied that this tendency toward pride could be eradicated (to think so would itself be a form of pride), Niebuhr believed that we could personally strive toward a humility that enables us to more closely imitate the love embodied by Jesus, and socially establish democratic institutions that enable different interest groups to contest one another’s claims nonviolently. Niebuhr certainly saw liberal idealism as one form that self-interested rationalization could take, but it was precisely because of the danger posed by its other forms that he warned his fellow Christians that they must be willing to take up the sword to defend the democratic institutions he believed embodied justice in an imperfect but real way.

My point is not to uncritically advocate a Niebuhrian theology or politics, but rather to expand what immigration “realism” might mean. Schmitz and Milikh are certainly right to call for a realistic immigration policy in an imperfect world, but they fail to justify the conclusion that immigration idealism is the only or even the most significant obstacle to such an end. After all, today the immigration policy debate in the United States is driven by a president on a quixotic quest to build a 2,000-mile wall across the nation’s southern border, who has called for banning the world’s billion Muslims from entering the United States, and who has ludicrously claimed that an immigrant to our country can bring along twenty or more relatives through “chain migration.” President Donald Trump punctuates his rally speeches with stories of violent crimes committed by immigrants to create the impression that the country is teeming with “criminal aliens,” and he falsely claims that foreign nations send undesirables to the United States through programs such as the diversity lottery visa system. Trump’s rhetoric paints a misleading picture of a country overrun and exploited by dangerous foreigners, a rhetoric that nevertheless appeals to his supporters.

Moralistic—but False—Narratives

Schmitz and Milikh both craft a moralistic narrative to justify a Trumpian stance on immigration. Both claim that immigration idealism is driven by “elites” who either misunderstand or are indifferent to the concerns of regular, working-class Americans. Both insinuate that these elites are ultimately antidemocratic, imposing their unpopular policies on a powerless populace, the majority of whom simply want the law to be enforced and the border to be protected.

For example, Milikh cites Gallup polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose illegal immigration. He fails to point out, however, that Gallup’s January 2019 poll shows that 60 percent of Americans oppose or strongly oppose building a wall as a means of preventing illegal immigration, and 61 percent of Americans oppose or strongly oppose deporting illegal immigrants living in the United States. In contrast, an overwhelming 81 percent of Americans support “allowing immigrants living in the US illegally the chance to become US citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.” In other words, although nearly all Americans see illegal immigration as a problem, most do not identify the problem, as Milikh does, as an “invasion” of lawless foreigners. The majority of Americans clearly see undocumented immigrants as a part of their community and welcome the possibility of their having a voice in the democratic process.

These poll results suggest that the narrative of an elite out of touch with the masses on immigration is a false one. Although business, labor, church, political, and media elites are mostly united in support of more welcoming immigration policies, this is in part a reflection of a widespread social consensus in support of immigration. A 2018 Gallup poll shows that 75 percent of Americans see immigration to the United States as a good thing overall. The same poll shows that 72 percent of Americans believe that legal immigration should be held at its current level or increased, while only 25 percent of Americans believe that legal immigration should be decreased. Rather than seeing the diverse population of immigrants arriving each year as a threat to American identity, most Americans recognize that the United States has been strengthened by immigrants enlivening the country’s cultural and political life.

The point is not that we should look to the polls to determine what is morally right, but rather that the narratives we tell to justify our moral arguments must have some basis in fact. Both Schmitz and Milikh put forward a kind of faux populism, claiming to speak on behalf of an aggrieved people ignored by the elites. In reality, these views are held by only a small segment of the population.

“Real Americans” and Demographic Change

This faux populism is driven by anxiety about the changing demographics of the United States, as Schmitz himself suggests by calling for an immigration policy that “give[s] preference to those who share the history, culture, and creed of the welcoming nation.” As the political theorist Samuel Goldman has argued, conservative politics in the Trump era, including immigration politics, centers around what he calls “the minority that thinks it’s a majority”—white Protestants who live predominantly in the Midwest and South and who identify as the “real America.” As the statistician Nate Silver explains:

If you’re one of these “real Americans,” you’re in the majority in almost every respect. Most Americans are white, most are Christian, most don’t have college degrees, and most live in the South or Midwest Census Bureau regions. And yet, only about 1 in 5 voters meets all of these descriptions.

This segment of the population feels besieged because, in reality, the “real America” is racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. As Jed Kolko points out, the American cities most demographically representative of the country are New Haven, Connecticut and Tampa, Florida, not Oshkosh, Wisconsin or Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Conversations about social cohesion and assimilation certainly have their place in the immigration debate, but we must be conscientious about how these concerns can serve as justifications for prioritizing the interests of historically dominant racial, ethnic, or religious groups at the expense of the increasingly diverse majority of Americans, or even rationalizing historical forms of discrimination and prejudice.

Schmitz at times conflates this demographic anxiety with the economic concerns of the working class. It is certainly true that mass immigration does have a downward effect on employment and wages for native-born Americans, particularly those without a high school diploma, but as the polling cited earlier suggests, there is little evidence that this has led to widespread opposition to immigration among America’s working class, which is itself racially and ethnically diverse. Indeed, with some exceptions, support for welcoming immigration policies is strongest in those parts of the country with the highest foreign-born populations and consequently where the economic effects of immigration would be most keenly felt. The effects of immigration on the labor force would be better addressed through policies that strengthen workers such as unionization, increasing the minimum wage, and increased funding for adult education and career training, especially considering the net benefits of immigration such as producing new jobs, the creation of new businesses, and shoring up the social safety net.

Milikh is also right to raise concerns about the effects of immigration on democratic sovereignty. Niebuhr’s Christian realism suggests, however, that democracy is not simply a means for a cohesive social body to express its voice, but also the means by which marginalized or excluded groups can claim a seat at the table. As public polling suggests, there are ways to integrate immigrants into the political community in an orderly process that respects democratic sovereignty and that are both feasible and garner popular support.

Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris asserts that while the public authorities have responsibility for the common good of the nation, the good of this particular community must be understood as part of a broader, universal human family. Therefore, public authorities cannot ignore the well-being of migrants seeking to become members of the political community. The Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico build on this principle in Strangers No Longer: they claim that although the state has the right to control its borders for the sake of the common good, the common good rightly understood includes due regard for the right to migrate and ultimately to become part of the political community.

Schmitz and Milikh raise legitimate concerns about the effects of immigration on social cohesion and democratic sovereignty. Unfortunately, they frame these concerns by means of a narrative that pits elites against the people, masks the diversity of “real Americans,” simplifies the American people’s complex views on immigration, and downplays democratic politics’ potential to empower excluded groups and redefine the political community. To craft a realistic immigration policy that does not abandon idealism, we must take these concerns for social cohesion seriously, but we must also recognize the demographic diversity of the United States as the “real America” and not something to be lamented. In the process, we should take the time to listen to the voices of immigrants and those who advocate for their place in American society.