You Must Not Deny Human Rights To Non-Citizens

You Must Not Deny Human Rights To Non-Citizens December 23, 2009

One of the primary justifications of the Declaration of Independence is that there are fundamental human rights, and if they are violated, the government which enforces them no longer has any legitimate authority. While I myself find that is an over-simplification, there is certainly truth to this idea. There are fundamental human rights, and governments, because they are to serve the common good, are meant to protect those rights. In this way, these rights transcend political institutions, political states – they are fundamental moral laws and are to be guaranteed to all, even those who are not citizens within a particular country. But it is possible for a legitimate government to fail. History shows this. All one has to do is see that the same people who declared such right for themselves often procured slaves for themselves. The Holy Scriptures also show us this. Just look at the situation of the early Christians. The authority of Rome was recognized despite the abuses Christians received at the hands of Roman magistrates.

Nonetheless, the American Revolution was founded upon Enlightenment ideals, such as the social contract.[1] The consent of the governed can be lost, and a revolution can be justified, once certain fundamental rights have been undermined:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Now, over two centuries later, there is a debate about human rights and whether or not certain fundamental rights should be given to non-American citizens. One prime example of this is in the issue of torture. While the moral ramifications of torture has not always been understood, and so Christians at one time thought it possible to use torture on others, now that we have explored the moral consequences of torture, we see it is contrary to the dignity of the human person and is intrinsically evil. It is not just intrinsically evil, it is also a grave evil. To torture someone is to go against their fundamental human right. Even if they have themselves done some grave evil, they do not forfeit their fundamental human dignity; it is not theirs to give up.  But some people say enemy combatants, because they are not American citizens, can be tortured because “the rights given to American citizens from the Constitution are not given to them.”  The issue, however, is not whether or not they are to be given Constitutional protections, but whether or not they are to be given human rights; and the whole foundation of the American system is based upon the notion that human rights transcend political states. To argue that enemy combatants are not to be given the same rights as the positive law of the Constitution is beside the point – and indeed, to ignore the greater fundamental issue is to reject the very justification given to the American Revolution.

This same question, however, is not just found in the issue of torture, but in the issue of abortion. The Constitution, as it has been interpreted and so as it is to be followed, does not give rights to the unborn because they are not “citizens.” They are not even given the rights of immigrants. They are, nonetheless, human persons. They must be given the same human rights as all humans, whether or not they are citizens of the United States.

In either case, the argument lies not with the rights and dignity of the human person, but how those rights can be ignored because positive law does not seem them as bearing such rights. This is what ties the issue of torture and abortion together. What is sad is that a critic of one such abuse ignores the other, and does not see the fundamental unity between both issues. We have ignored greater moral rules, and only look to the accidental progress of positive law as the means by which we defend inhumane activity.  Other debates, such as the issue of immigration, and the kind of freedom which should be accorded in immigration, also fall under this category. We need to understand that positive law serves a proper function, but we must not confuse positive law as the moral law, nor that positive law is to trump moral law when positive law allows for, or requires, evil.

 Nationalism, it seems, develops into a great evil when the reverse is what happens – that is, when moral law is judged by political Constitutions. This, I fear, is what is happening in the United States today. Instead of concerns for the common good as required by moral law, political good and the good of the nation-state is propped up over and above the common good.  The end result of this nightmare is not one I can predict.

[1] Now, I am not saying I agree with the Enlightenment on the social contract, because I do not. This is at least hinted at in the body of the this text. However, I do think the issue of human rights is one which is authentic even to the most pre-enlightenment traditions; they might have used a different means of expressing this, but it is clear that the concern was there, because the common good was desired by the state.

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  • Phil

    A long long time ago, there was a land that had a revolution on the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. That land now gives no representation to permanent residents, foreign workers, or temporary workers all of whom pay taxes. Nobody seems upset about that, yet that land had a revolution for it. …..


  • I agree that fundamental human rights are awarded to all people, irregardless of citizenship. However, dont confuse human rights for the privileges of citizenship. This is why Im against giving anything to illegals, among a slough of other policies I hold.

  • Phil

    I do not recall God having any concept of “illegals” in the old testament or the new testament, nor in the Church, so what’s this idea of illegals coming from?.

  • Jeff

    I personally support the infusion of a new culture — the hispanic culture — into our dead culture. Not only do I support it, I pray for this infusion to accelerate.

    Having said that, I think it is obvious that the motivation of the left in encouraging the infusion is not a principled motivation, it’s pure pandering to add to the voting rolls and ultimately to assimilate this beautiful and vibrant hispanic culture into the culture of death and nihilism that the Democrat Party itself has created over the last 50 years. And this sickens me. It is sinful to welcome the stranger but then turn right around and make him a ward of the state and shove our diseased culture of materialism and death down his throat.

    Democrats just want the votes. They don’t care about the human rights of these people.

  • Good points, Henry. If we must use the language of rights, and perhaps we must, then we must recognize that some rights are given by the social contract, while others arise from our human dignity. When it comes to the fundamental moral ways we respond to others, whether those others are enemies, the unborn, etc., it is the basic human rights that most obligate us.

    • Kyle

      I agree there are issues with using “rights” language, though of course you explain why it can be used: when the discussion is on human dignity and what is required, morally, by us to preserve that dignity. The rights are inalienable in the sense of moral duty and obligation, though of course, they can easily be trampled upon by human activity. It is always a danger to map out these rights, because once you do, people turn from the spirit of the map to the letter, and use the letter to find ways around human dignity. And yet something needs to be said because what is most often mapped out are those aspects of human dignity which are being questioned and in danger of vanishing completely.

  • Cathy

    I don’t believe Americans wish to deny human rights. Working-class Americans support a system that is subject to abuse. That abuse is a sense of entitlement for services and rights. This sense of entitlement endangers someone’s ability to provide basic needs for self and family when immigrants demand the same protection as citizens who have been supporting this sytem.

    Sometimes people expect to receive without a sense of obligation to contribute into the system.

  • muennemann

    Most Americans wish to believe their government doesn’t deny human rights to anyone. Americans of all social classes support a system that is subject to abuse. The belief that someone else is abusing “the system” endangers the believer’s ability to receive the joy God offers us with each day, as well as the opportunity to enliven God’s gift by joyfully providing basic needs for self, family, immigrants, orphans and widows as Jesus demands of us.

    Sometimes people receive an entire life from God, with no sense of obligation to contribute to God’s kingdom. I wonder, does God have an issue with that?

  • David Nickol

    This sense of entitlement endangers someone’s ability to provide basic needs for self and family when immigrants demand the same protection as citizens who have been supporting this sytem.


    As Cardinal Mahony points out in his op-ed page article in the New York Times

    >The Senate bill bars undocumented immigrants from using even their own money to buy health insurance in the government-sponsored marketplace, or exchange, being proposed. The House bill allows undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance from the exchange, if they use their own money and receive no federal subsidy.

    It may very well be the Senate provision that prevails. How is buying insurance with your own money an “entitlement”?

    Not only is locking illegal immigrants out of health care immoral. It makes no sense economically. Immigrants may have no insurance, but they still have the right to go to the emergency room for whatever medical problems they have. I recently had a medical emergency (I was hit by a car), and the bills for x-rays and such were really quite modest. But the bill for just being admitted to the ER was $1000. Even if it were not immoral to shut immigrants out of health insurance reform, it makes no economic sense. It’s bigotry.

  • Bless you all. I cannot comment right now.

  • Cathy

    Mr. Nickol:

    Who is running the government-sponsered marketplace? It will obviously be subsidized by taxpayers. Some of these taxpayers cannot afford to pay, but they will be forced to pay.

    The issue was never about locking anyone out of healthcare. Payment for goods and services in the form of healthcare is not locking someone out. The issue is about mandates for payments. The Senate and House are dictating how families utilize their resources.

  • David Nickol


    So are you saying you would allow illegal aliens to buy health insurance with their own money on the exchange?

    Would you allow illegal aliens who work and pay taxes to get the same economic benefits as citizens who work and pay taxes? Or are the immigrants — because of their illegal status — required to pay the same taxes as citizens but to get no benefits from doing so.

  • David Nickol


    Are you opposed to food stamps on the grounds that they take money away from some people in order to help others? Is that an illegitimate thing for the government to do? What about providing shelters for the homeless? Why should I pay to put a roof over the heads of homeless people when I have my own rent to pay?

  • Cathy

    Mr. Nichols:

    I believe that illegal aliens should take the proper measures to become documented workers in this country. If someone happens to be in this country illegally and has the opportunity to buy health insurance, I do not have an argument against this. The issue would be with the insurance company.

    I am not supportive of the healthcare exchange as provided by the Senate. They are rushing the bill without proper time for debate and scrutiny. Therefore, I do not agree with allowing illegal aliens to participate in the exchange.

    (The House bill does allow illegal immigrants to participate in the public option, so they would be subsidized.)

    I do not entirely oppose the social programs you list. While some people view them as a right, I view them as a privilege. The federal government does not have an unlimited supply of revenue to cover social programs and should not default to increased taxes to support legislation.

    If the federal government assessed taxes for programs that prevented people from providing for their own basic needs (food and shelter), then my answer would be yes – to your last post.

  • digbydolben

    he culture of death and nihilism that the Democrat Party itself has created over the last 50 years

    Jeff, although I basically agree with you about the American “culture of death and nihilism,” I don’t think it is primarily the product of the Democratic Party–although that party has, indeed–just as much as the Republican Party–contributed mightily to the malaise.

    The prime contributor is the American culture of consumerism, which has commodified life itself, acting out of a spiritual culture that is exactly the same as what the Marxists and Nazis were acting out of. If YOU don’t think so, then you haven’t been reading the recent encyclicals of the modern popes.