Pope Francis is a genuinely good and compassionate man. For that reason he is admired by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. That is why during his visit to the United States, as he spoke about a host of important social and economic issues, his words found receptive ears even among those who disagree with his positions. 

Prominent among the topics he touched upon in his address to Congress, was his plea that the United States and other developed nations admit more immigrants. While the pope’s exhortation that we “treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” should be universally embraced, his assertion that “We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” is problematic. 

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Numbers do matter. They matter greatly. Immigration does not just affect immigrants. Immigration deeply affects the receiving countries and the settled populations of those countries. That is precisely why the United States and virtually every nation on earth has immigration laws and sets limits on the number of people who are accepted for admission. 

It is self-evident that people immigrate in the expectation that it will produce an advantage. Nobody uproots themselves from their native soil and moves to a country where they are not familiar with the culture and language unless doing so satisfies some compelling self-interest. It is clear that this is the perspective that shapes Francis’s views on immigration. 

But there is another perspective that he, and other well-meaning people tend to overlook. Massive influxes of immigrants can have a seriously disruptive and adverse effect on significant numbers of people in the countries where the immigrants settle. Ironically, the people who are harmed the most in the receiving countries are those with whom the pope most closely identifies: the poor, the near-poor, the unemployed, and those trapped in education and social welfare systems that are failing to keep up with the needs of those who are already being left behind. 

Immigration on the scale the pope seems to advocate is not an act of national charity. Charity can only be given with one’s own resources. There is no moral or ethical doctrine that allows those in power to be charitable with other people’s jobs and wages, their children’s educational opportunities, their access to needed benefits and services, or their tax dollars. Yet, that is precisely what has happened as the foreign born population has skyrocketed from 9.6 million in 1970 to more than 40 million today. 

Numbers also matter because in spite of decades of high levels of immigration to the United States and other Western nations, conditions in most the sending countries have not improved. In many cases they have deteriorated further. Despite the harm that mass immigration has inflicted on many struggling Americans, the World Bank reports that there are still 2.2 billion people around the world who survive on less than $2 a day

The developed nations cannot turn their backs on those people, but neither can they absorb them all. That is where the moral force of the pope can play an enormous and constructive role. As the first Latin American pontiff, Francis can be the same sort of transformative figure that John Paul II was in liberating Eastern Europe from the shackles of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism. It is not by coincidence that the events that led to the demise of communism began in Poland.

Similarly, Francis can be the driving force that liberates the people of Central and South America from the corruption and violence that has stunted the economic and social development of much of the Western Hemisphere. These predominantly Catholic nations have all the human and natural resources they need to flourish, but what is needed is the sort of political, social and economic reforms that reshaped Central and Eastern Europe a generation ago. 

If Francis can be a catalyst for such change in Latin America and in other parts of the world where human aspirations and dignity are stifled by violence and corruption, his moral authority to call upon the wealthier nations of the world to commit resource to the development of those countries would be greatly enhanced. 

In a world of some 7.5 billion people – and growing – addressing the problems of the poor and dispossessed where they live is really the only viable option. The problems of the people the pope sincerely champions cannot be solved through migration. They can only be solved by minimizing their motivations to migrate.

Stein is president of FAIR.