“The Catholic Church in the United States is an immigrant Church with a long history of embracing diverse newcomers and providing assistance and pastoral care to immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people on the move. Our Church has responded to Christ’s call for us to “welcome the stranger among us,” for in this encounter with the immigrant, the migrant, and the refugee in our midst, we encounter Christ” so writes the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. As well, in these days one walks into a political maelstrom that echoes the deep political divide. One only need read the news to read about the events unfolding at our southern border – and depending on the source you use you will get a certain slant on the events as “crisis”, “humanitarian disaster”, with blame assigned to past or current administrations.
These days I worry that people are not curious about such issues. We all suffer from 24-hours news fatigue, friends that are rabid about their opinions, and a constant drumbeat of modern life, but here in the shadow of Easter, the words of the Last Supper still compel us: “Do you realize what I have done for you?…I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” Jesus’ model of humble service calls us to action, a moral response, prayer and other forms of service. Why immigration? It was 25 years ago this month that I went on mission to Kenya and served the people of a parish included approximately 1,000 Rwandan refugees in the aftermath of the interhamwe of that nations’ killing fields. So, I am remembering.
While I have my own experience in refugee and immigration ministry, it is also a recognition that every prophet’s rebuke included a condemnation of how the society and rulers of his day treated the alien and stranger among them. The US Catholic Bishops have echoed that prophetic cry when they remind us that the measure of any society’s goodness is seen in the treatment of the immigrant. And so, the immigration issues are not going away – news fatigue aside, we are called to be curious about such things and to form our consciences.
During his campaign, President Biden, in a rare criticism of President Obama, said that one of their mistakes was immigration policy. During the Obama administration, an estimated 1.7 million people without criminal records were deported to their country of origin – this is in addition to those deported for criminal activity. Candidate Biden said that the administration had not “gotten it right.”
Within hours of the start of his administration, President Biden not only revoked a Trump administration executive order that aggressively targeted undocumented immigrants for arrest, but also sent a sweeping proposal to Congress that promised, after four years of an explicitly anti-immigration administration, “to restore humanity and American values to our immigration system.” The proposal’s goals are to modernize the immigration system and manage our borders, while addressing the root causes of migration. From the White House associated Fact Sheet: “President Biden’s strategy is centered on the basic premise that our country is safer, stronger, and more prosperous with a fair, safe and orderly immigration system that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together, and allows people—both newly arrived immigrants and people who have lived here for generations—to more fully contribute to our country. President Biden knows that new Americans fuel our economy, as innovators and job creators, working in every American industry, and contributing to our arts, culture, and government.” Agree or disagree, the topic is ever present.
The rich body of Catholic social teaching (including Papal encyclicals, Bishops’ statements and pastoral letters) has always emphasized the dignity of the human person and the foundational importance of family as keystones of our moral obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself. In the pastoral statement, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, the Bishops of the United States called upon the Catholic faithful to a conversion of minds and hearts, imploring us to communion and solidarity with diverse newcomers, and entreating us to find new and meaningful ways to welcome our immigrant sisters and brothers into our parishes, schools and communities.
Part of our Catholic reflection on immigration issues (and there is a myriad to consider) is something both the Church and the Administration have drawn attention to: root causes.
Two op-ed pieces appeared last week from very difference authors. One, a democratic member of the U.S. Congress representing El Paso; the other from the recent ambassador to Mexico during the previous administration. Each in their op-ed pieces offer that all the rhetoric about the US response is ineffective unless one first acknowledges the human dynamic underlying motivations for immigration.
Representative Escobar wrote that there is an element of immigration motivation that goes largely ignored and is undampened by US immigration policy, pandemic or any other factors. “Overwhelmingly and consistently, Central American refugees tell stories of fleeing violence, persecution, food insecurity and calamitous economic conditions in their countries.” There is an ever present “push.”
Ambassador Lambert wrote: “But the biggest factor driving such [immigration] flows has gone largely unaddressed: the willingness and ability of American employers to hire untold millions of unauthorized immigrants. The vast majority of the people are coming here for the same reason people have always come here: to work (or to join their families who are here to work).” An ever present “pull.” In part, Escobar agrees as she writes: “businesses across the country benefit from the labor of these hard-working individuals — and nothing changes.”
Escobar and Lambert each acknowledge the factors of “push” and “pull” but offer a different assessment of the weight one would assign to the impact. Meanwhile, the US Catholic Bishops offer a simple graphic of this dynamic:
These are basic factors that describe a human response to their intolerable circumstances. These generic root causes fueled the Great Migration. Sometimes known as the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration, it points to the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that occurred between 1916 and 1970. In a more limited sense, it describes the eleven million people who migrated from rural to urban areas between 1870 and 1920. In today terms it describes the continues movement toward urban centers from small towns where lack of jobs and opportunities are compounded by opioid trafficking and use.
I think one only need look at that graphic with the eyes of a parent to understand and empathize.
Immigration is a complex issue that will no doubt be added to the political fires, but apart from our individual political identities, we are Catholic. Whatever the position we take or the solution we propose, the dignity of the human person and the foundational importance of family must be keystones of our moral obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself.