For this week's Common Good Forum, we invited the National Catholic Reporter's Michael Sean Winters to write about his experience this week at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops's four-day National Migration Conference.
I am not sure which is more horrifying, the images of unaccompanied children, scared, fleeing their homes, having traveled hundreds of miles, and ending up at a detention center that has all the warmth of a barracks, or the images of angry, hate-filled protesters in the town of Murrieta, California, trying to block the buses from bringing these children to that town’s immigration processing center.
In a powerful column published at Religion News Service, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh said the images of the protesters reminded her of the photos of police dogs attacking marchers in Selma and of the little girl running naked in a street in Vietnam. She voiced the hope that the images this time, as in those previous times, would awaken the conscience of the nation. Sr. Mary Ann, who is a holy woman, did not say it, but I will: It sure looks like these latter day Nativist protesters are the same people who spent weeks this spring protesting on behalf of rancher Cliven Bundy: Angry. Hate-filled. Entitled. Indifferent to the common good. Who hates children?
The press has covered this influx of unaccompanied children as a political story, and in one sense it is. But, the roots of this problem are deeper than anything President Obama or the Republicans in Congress have done or failed to do. There are plenty of mea culpas to go around and almost all of them should be uttered by Americans.
We know that the children are fleeing violence and gangs and drug cartels in their homeland. As far as I can tell, there are three foundational contributors to the crisis in Central America that have caused the parents of these children to send them to the U.S.
First, globalization has lifted some out of poverty, but those left behind have been pushed even further into poverty. While poverty and want always have been part of the lives of people in Central America, they have being hugely exacerbated by globalization. The world economic system is responsible for widening the gap between those living in prosperity and those living in misery. With globalization, the power centers have shifted away from self-contained state economies to the benefit of free markets, which, because there are few international regulations, are virtually running along unfettered. As a result, what holds sway, when it comes to policies, are capital and economic data concerned only with profit and the rate of return on investment, rather than human values. The weakening of the economies of smaller states and their increasing national debt, brought about by globalization, are factors directly responsible for the inability of these nations to provide social services, protection against crime and economic stimulus for the benefit of their people. In other words, this is not just about people fleeing poverty, but fleeing a country that is undergoing social collapse because of the global economic system.
Second, much of the violence stems from the drug trade and the violence it brings. People, especially the young, need to flee their neighborhoods in Central America in order to stay alive rather than join a gang. This situation is directly related to the fact the we Americans can’t kick our drug habits. We as a nation, as American citizens, are responsible for this. So maybe the next time we hear someone decry children and victims seeking asylum in our country, they just might want to redirect their anger at their friends, colleagues and family members who casually use drugs and call it “recreation.” The next time someone labels drug-use a “victimless crime,” ask them to go to Tegucigalpa or San Salvador or Managua or Ciudad Juarez and see the victims of Americans’ desire to escape.
Third, there are the guns. Where do you think all those guns doing all those killings come from? Our nation may be a net importer of goods and services, but not when it comes to guns. Bad enough that guns are as common as street signs in our own cities, they are now flooding into Latin America where drug cartels and other violent criminals snap them up and wreak havoc on their communities. The criminal gangs driving children from their homes and to our border are armed with guns made in the USA.
This week, I saw a different face of America from that of the hate-filled protesters in Murrieta, and the gun manufacturers and the drug user indifferent to the consequences of her habit and the corporate raider indifferent to the consequences of his business practices. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops held a four-day National Migration Conference. Hundreds of Catholic activists, clergy, lawyers, sisters and brothers, social workers, pastoral associates, neighbors, policy analysts, and others all converged in DC to learn more about the problem, more about the solutions, and more about how to get one from the other. I met people who spend all their lives seeking to help, to protect, to teach, to rescue refugees and migrants. I listened to fascinating panelists discuss the broad array of issues involved in migration and refugee policy. One morning, there were eleven different workshops to attend. One dealt with worker immigration law. Another focused on family-based immigration policies. Another looked at various legal issues involved with refugees from Central America while a different panel examined best practices for strengthening cultural orientation for refugees while yet another allowed migrant youths to tell their stories.
Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, could scarcely have been more fulsome in her praise for the work undertaken by the assembled Catholic activists. Those who think the Obama administration is comprehensively hostile to the Catholic Church should have been there to listen, and those within the administration that breezily dismiss the Church’s role in society should have been there too. It turns out that, according to Ms. Richard, one out of every three refugees who have come to the United States since 1975 has been helped by an agency of the Catholic Church. “Just as refugees have relied on you, so have we at the State Department,” she said.
I could scarcely have been prouder of our Church and of its commitment to achieving social justice for migrants and refugees. It was exciting to be in a room where everyone was excited about Pope Francis. It was good to be reminded that the next time someone complains about the “institutional church” or “organized religion,” it is the institutions and the organization that our Church brings to the task of assisting refugees and migrants that have made a real difference in their lives.
Ever since Congressman Eric Cantor lost his primary, political pundits have said that immigration reform is dead for now. They may be right. But, those children coming to our border are not dead, and their needs are many. Our Church is doing all it can to help them. But, we will just be putting our fingers in the dyke of a broken system until we enact comprehensive immigration reform. It is time for Catholics to educate their neighbors about the need to get out and vote this November for candidates that support fixing the system and, just as important, are willing to tackle the underlying causes, the push factors that are causing people to flee their homes and how we American contribute to it. No fix will be perfect. No system is perfect. The charitable arm of the Church need never fear going out of business. But, the sources of the problem are deeper than the current debate suggests. It is time for all Catholics to share some of the commitment I saw in the lives and faces of the Catholic activists convened in Washington this week.