Refugees or Lawbreakers? A Catholic Perspective

What to make of the current border crisis?  Are those unaccompanied minors refugees, escaping unjust oppression (sex trafficking and drug violence) or are they lawbreakers, a long list of illegal immigrants coming into the United States?

I must admit that in the past when I saw migrants or refugees streaming across a border, usually in the Middle East or Africa, I didn’t really pay much attention. I mean, I felt sorry for them, but I wished them well. I never really made the connection between what I witnessed on the television news and the United States. We did not seem to be the type of country that would have to worry about refugees.

But the recent influx of unaccompanied minors across the border from Central America into the United States has caused me to think differently. The debate in this country has been fierce. As with almost every significant issue these days, it is roundly political. On the one hand, there are those who view this influx of unaccompanied minors as part of a larger problem for people who seek to come across the border illegally. On the other hand, there are those who view these unaccompanied minors as victims who need the caring compassion of a country with great means.

At the heart of the current situation, is a law passed during the administration of George W. Bush, which required that all unaccompanied minors from Central America must be given significant due process before being sent back. The fear had to do with them increasing concern at the time that these unaccompanied minors were often escaping abuse as victims of the sex trade or drug violence. On Dec. 23, 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.  Essentially the law says unaccompanied minors from Central America must be turned over to the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours and be kept humanely until a suitable family member could be found in the United States. These children were also to be provided with appropriate legal representation.

When the law was enacted, most unaccompanied minors came from Mexico, and were sent back to Mexico relatively quickly. This law was passed because of the fear that unaccompanied minors coming from Central America could be sent back to pimps or to communities with rampant drug violence. But since 2008 the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America has increased dramatically. As a result, the need to care for them and process them has created a crisis along the border.

The current crisis raises an important question about what the humanitarian response should be. On one side of the political aisle, are those who view this is symptomatic of a failed border enforcement policy which only encourages more to come across the border. On the other side of the aisle, the current crisis is seen as directly resulting from the political inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The president appears to be caught somewhere in between those calling for tougher important border enforcement on the one hand, and a desire to pass comprehensive immigration reform on the other. The number of deportations under the Obama administration is significantly greater than occurred in previous administrations. Given the current polarization that exists in the Congress, however, it appears unlikely that any meaningful immigration reform could be passed.

In the meantime, there is the overwhelming challenge of caring for these unaccompanied minors and others. The attempt to see to it that these unaccompanied minors wind up in places United States that can care for them, has given rise to strong emotions in the communities where they are placed.

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And yet in the midst of all of this, I cannot help but wonder what person of faith is supposed to do. To be sure, most of those coming from Central America are Catholic.  But even if they were not, what obligation does a wealthy country like the United States have? While there are those who suggest the United States foreign aid is coming at the expense of helping our own citizens in this country, the facts simply do not bear this out. Americans as individuals are quite generous, but as a percentage of the gross domestic product, the United States gives a much smaller percentage than many other countries in the developed world.

In his testimony before the United States Congress, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz noted the following about the immigration crisis.

The Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image. In the Old Testament, God calls upon his people to care for the alien because of their own alien experience: “So, you, too, must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). In the New Testament, the image of the migrant is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his own life and work, Jesus identified himself with newcomers and with other marginalized persons in a special way: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt. 25:35). Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher without a home of his own, and as noted above, he was a child migrant fleeing to Egypt to avoid violence, persecution, and death.
(Mt. 2:15).

It seems clear that we have some type of responsibility regardless of the circumstances to persons in need. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus mentions prisoners for example, as those deserving care and concern.  It is the Samaritan, a foreigner, who stops to care for the man who fell in with robbers, and is the hero of the story.  Jesus and his parents are refugees when they flee into Egypt.  It is Jesus who engages the Samaritan woman at the well.  The current challenge of the border brings together in a complicated way an individual’s responsibility to live their faith, and appropriate policies for the civil government. To be sure, it cannot be forgotten that those streaming across the border that have gotten our attention are children.

So it seems clear that as individuals we have at least some responsibility for reaching out to those in need. I would suggest this obligation arose long before the current immigration crisis.  But the current circumstance provides a particularly important moment to address the situation, not to score political points, but to reach out with humanitarian aid, and the collective wisdom necessary to reach a long-term solution. The current situation cannot continue. Since October, 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained in the United States just since October. This is twice as many as the same period a year ago. This does not include the thousands of unaccompanied minors detained by Mexico.

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In the short term, individuals have a need to provide assistance that meet the basic needs of the unaccompanied minors. Collectively, Catholics in the United States need to work to press for a solution to the immigration crisis not just simply for the next few months but for the long-term. It is not likely that the immigration problem in the United States will go away anytime soon.

But what this crisis does require from American Catholics is a witness to the human dignity that all people share regardless of citizenship. To me, the choice seems quite stark. We either believe all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and as a result have certain basic human needs, or we do not.  It did not take long to find the following verses in the Bible:

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”  (Lk. 12:48)

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 19:24)

“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19:25)

“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  (Mt. 19:21)

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34)

“So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)

“You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

“For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?  Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you dishonored the poor person. Are not the rich oppressing you? And do they themselves not haul you off to court?” (James 2:2-6)

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:23)

And what is it the Church has to say about immigrants and refugees?  In August of 2013 the US Bishops issued a statement that called for comprehensive immigration reform.  In it, the bishops reiterated their call from Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope that called for more than just an “enforcement only” policy.  Rather, they supported a six point policy that emphasized, in addition to enforcement, earned legalization, a future worker program, family-based immigration reform, restoration of due process and addressing the root causes of immigration.

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The Vatican has issued numerous statements about migration, refugees and xenophobia.  The clarion call in all is the need to recognize people’s human dignity, given them by God, not earned or deserved, but rather the result of humans’ being created by God in his image and likeness.

Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, has this to say about the treatment of immigrants:  “As a result, the dignity of the person derives not from their economic situation, political affiliation, level of education, immigration status or religious belief. Every human being, for the very fact of being a person, possesses a dignity that deserves to be treated with the utmost respect.”  He goes on to say,

“I think I can say with reason that in our globalised world, progress is not achieved only with a greater flow of capital, goods and information. An increase in the commercial and financial exchange between nations does not automatically lead to an improvement in the living standards of the population, nor does it automatically generate more wealth. In this regard, we note that nations, especially those that are more economically and socially advanced, owe their development largely to migrants. … Those societies in which legal immigrants are not openly welcomed, but are instead treated with prejudice, as dangerous or harmful subjects, show themselves to be weak and unprepared for the challenges of the coming decades. By contrast, those that are able to see newcomers as generators of wealth, especially of a human and cultural nature, therefore know how to appropriately welcome them; those societies that make consistent efforts to integrate immigrants, offer an unequivocal message of solidity and guarantees to the entire international community, which can generate further progress.

The issue is complex.  The Church also recognizes the legitimate need for nations to defend borders and for peoples to obey just laws.  But since so often migration is the result of the “violation of the most elementary human rights, violence, lack of security, wars, unemployment and poverty”, it does seem we have a fundamental concern for the protection of the most basic human rights. (Read the full text of Cardinal Parolin’s remarks here.)

I have no solutions.  But I do beleive more than anything else the current crisis reminds me that I too will have to provide an account of my decisions when the Lord judges me and my treatment of him as the stranger.


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