“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). As these words from Sacred Scripture indicate, the Judeo-Christian tradition commands the believer to provide a sympathetic welcome to foreigners. Yet, the passage reveals that the giver of the hospitality is also graced with a blessing, a mutual interchange which enhances both. The proponents of immigration today are calling attention to that very fact. Those opposed, however, see immigrants as a threat to their nation’s well-being. Much of the research done in the social sciences focuses on the persons who migrate, not on the host community that receives them. Yet, as history quickly demonstrates, cultural influences are always mutual.
Not all migrants or persons traveling are seeking a permanent home in the host country. In fact, students, tourists, pilgrims, and military personnel constitute part of this large group on the move. Their effect on the host community is often quite noteworthy. However, this reflection focuses on the relationship between immigrants, refugees, and host communities.
With recent debates raging over immigration in industrialized regions such as North America and Western Europe, the concept of host community is assuming greater consequence. In these countries, those opposed to further immigration are at loggerheads with those favoring it. My first reflection deals with the pros and cons of allowing immigration and the second with some lights from our Catholic faith tradition. I will conclude with some pastoral considerations not to be overlooked by the pastoral agents in the host community.
Critics of a national policy friendly to those who must immigrate because of vast changes in the world socio-political order argue that the benefits reaped from modern industrial growth will soon be lost “if the door remains open” to groups of ethnic and religious minorities that cannot be readily integrated into their adopted country. These nativists maintain that the newcomers’ differences in culture represent barriers to national unity. They maintain that certain cultures are simply incompatible. Especially in situations where these minorities are sizable in number, antagonism towards them is likely to develop.
Anti-immigrationists say that these newly arrived populations, since they are often willing to work for lower wages, deprive the native population of certain type of employment and become a drain on public coffers, drawing limited funds from social service agencies. Some even argue that the “only relatively successful models in history for ‘multicultural’ or ‘pluralistic’ societies have been…absolutist despotisms”(Thornton, 1995, 32).
Defenders of immigration are quick to point out that people who immigrate, because of the many hardships which they have undergone – not only to arrive at the host country but also to integrate themselves into its fabric – are “likely to be a self-selecting group with a much greater than average degree of energy, ambition, toughness, and adaptability”(Fukuyama, 1995, 16). Instead of being a liability to the host country, therefore, they provide an asset. Fukuyama, in defending the rights of immigrants, calls attention to the fact that they are often used as scapegoats, particularly when economies are not doing well (Ibid., 15).
What does our Catholic faith tradition contribute to the debate? As was already mentioned, the biblical injunction to aid of the foreigner is very clear. Particularly in the case of refugees fleeing war, torture, and destitution, Christ’s great commandment of love is foremost. Magisterial teaching has consistently defended the right of the individual to migrate in such circumstances (Deck, 1978, 45) and Catholic history is filled with examples of concrete works done in service of the migrant. Moreover, as some theologians note, our Catholic tradition is actually a composite of many traditions and cultures (Elizondo, 1983 and Audinet, 1992), demonstrating that there can exist unity amidst diversity. As the great apostle Paul exhorted his communities, the Church is built up through solidarity and therefore we should “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2, NRSV). Both the migrants and the host community are thereby enriched (Pico, 1985).
In conclusion, some pastoral considerations serve as pointers of what direction our service should take. In the spirit of mutual enrichment stressed above, we should accentuate the riches – whether they be spiritual, cultural, or economic – which each group brings to the encounter. In the case of migrants going from a less to a more industrialized country, these often less educated persons are not always aware of their own riches. If feasible, a visit by the pastoral agent to the immigrants’ country of origin will prove invaluable. Besides the profitable experience of having to struggle through culture shock, the pastoral agent can help discover and promote the gifts of a particular culture. Such attributes as a great respect for family, the Sacred, and tradition can contribute much to a modern industrialized society which is groping for transcendent values.
The children of immigrants have special needs that must also be taken into consideration. Often they find themselves lost between two very different worlds. Greater cultural awareness and self-affirmation can assist them in taking the best from both worlds. Their own recent memory of being marginalized likewise can help them to be more empathetic with newer immigrants.
Audinet, Jacques. “El Extranjero, Nuevo Europeo.” Concilium 240 (abril 1992):289-298.
Deck, S.J., Allan Figueroa. “A Christian Perspective on the Reality of Illegal Immigration.” Social Thought (Fall 1978): 39-53.
Elizondo, Virgil P. Galilean Journey: The Mexican American Promise. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The Value of Immigrants” in Ethnic Conflict, 14-25, edited by Charles Cozic, San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1995.
Hernández Pico, S.J, Juan. “Solidarity with the Poor and the Unity of the Church” in Theology of Christian Solidarity, 43-98, edited by Jon Sobrino, S.J. and Juan Hernández, S.J., Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1985.
Thornton, James. “The Threat from Immigrants” in Ethnic Conflict, 26-35, edited by Charles Cozic, San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1995.