For today's Common Good Forum, we feature an essay by Todd Scribner on how comprehensive immigration reform must been seen as a part of the consistent ethic of life. Todd serves as the education outreach coordinator for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services.
“We have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others; it doesn’t concern us; it is none of our business.” These words, spoken by Pope Francis during a Mass celebrated at Lampedusa, have touched a nerve in the Catholic community and reminded the Church of its obligations to the poor and the vulnerable among us. His homily, which had as its backdrop the tragic death of migrants seeking an escape from poverty and violence in their homeland, holds to account each of us who turn our back on their suffering, their desperation, and their need for protection.
Almost a year later, Pope Francis’ sentiments were echoed in Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s homily at a Mass held at the U.S./Mexico border— a Lampedusa of the Americas in its own right. Here, he contrasted the love shown by the Good Samaritan, an outcast himself, in helping an injured man lying on the side of the road, to those of us who embody an indifferent, if not hostile, attitude to the suffering stranger. It is our duty to open ourselves to the stranger, and in the context of O’Malley’s homily, the migrant, and view her as a person and no longer a dangerous “other.
Both Pope Francis’ homily at Lampedusa and Cardinal O’Malley’s parallel commentary in Nogales, Arizona exemplified the longstanding concern that the Catholic Church has for migrants and their families. In a recent essay, Maria Mazzenga highlighted the central role that the Church has played in providing material and pastoral support to immigrants—both European and Latino—as they arrived in America from the nineteenth century to the middle decades of the next one.
In the period surrounding World War II, the Catholic Church’s formal outreach to migrants expanded beyond the traditional immigrant to include the millions of refugees displaced by the war. From 1948, following the passage of the Displaced Persons Act to the mid-seventies, the Church helped to resettle hundreds of thousands refugees from Eastern and Western Europe, Cuba, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Since 1975 more than a million refugees, one in three of all refugees brought into the United States during this period, have been resettled by the Catholic Church. Regardless of religious or cultural identity the Church has embraced as part of its social mission the duty to assist those who might otherwise remain mired in refugee camps around the world.
The Church’s work with refugee communities is multifaceted and complex and depends on a global network to respond to crises as they emerge. Domestically, an expansive network of resettlement agencies, many of which are housed in Catholic Charities located in dioceses across the country, coordinate employment and educational services, cultural orientation, and medical support for refugees following their arrival.
Overseas, organizations including Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Services, the International Catholic Migration Commission, and Caritas International provide direct services and engage advocacy for migrants and refugees living outside the United States. Depending on its specific mission, these organizations might manage refugee camps or provide innovative solutions to tough problems like poverty, violence, and environmental catastrophes—all of which function as drivers of migration.
The push and pull factors that drive migration are often intertwined and difficult to sort out. For this reason it is useful for the Church to have an international network that can make sense of crises as they unfold. Because of its universality, the Church has the capacity to witness first-hand problems as they develop on the ground and assist in providing a comprehensive response that will take into account the complexity of a given situation. One example of this in action is the growing crisis along the U.S./Mexico border.
Months before the mainstream media began paying attention to the influx of migrant children along the border the Catholic bishops of the United States were raising concerns about this emerging crisis. In November 2013, a delegation from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops traveled to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to explore the underlying causes that promoted the high levels of migration out of these countries. Their findings, confirmed by other sources, found that violence perpetrated by organized transnational gangs, loosely-affiliated criminal imitators of gangs, and drug cartels, had permeated all aspects of life in Central America and become one of the primary factors driving the migration of children from the region.
Because the violence and threats to personal safety lay at the core of this problem, a sizable portion of these migrant children would likely qualify for refugee status and have international protection claims. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, called on the U.S. government to help address the root causes driving migration from these countries, and provide due process for migrants interdicted at the border to ensure that their international protection claims, guaranteed to them under domestic and international law, are respected.
Not to do so—to repatriate them without even providing a comprehensive review of their particular situation—would be like apologizing to a ten year old who just moments before escaped from a house in flames, telling him that he would be a financial burden if he was to stay, and summarily sending him on his way back into the burning building. Such a response would be unseemly, to put it mildly.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of response that we have witnessed, as the influx of migrants across the border has resulted in a sharp backlash in many local communities. Unaccompanied migrant children and pregnant mothers have been turned away from federal processing centers and treated like outcasts unworthy of our love and support. Calls have been issued to repatriate them all, without taking into account the reason why they came in the first place.
This is an unacceptable response that flouts the Gospel of Life that is central to the mission of the Church. Understood from the vantage point of its moral tradition, discussions related to migration ought to be understood through the prism of life. There is, to borrow a phrase that has fallen out of style in some Catholic circles, a kind of consistent ethic that flows throughout the Church’s moral teaching.
Unfortunately, partisan politics often gets in the way of the church’s call to respect life in all its stages, thus corrupting the message of the Gospel and attenuating the moral tradition of the Church. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas highlighted this tendency when he wrote that “One party welcomes an immigrant, but promotes that the unborn daughters of citizen and immigrant alike have no right to be born. The other party thinks it is good for a society to welcome life, but not here, if the country you come from lies somewhere south of Brownsville, Texas.”
As our moral and political judgments tend to break down along party lines and Catholic identity becomes an increasingly fragmented phenomenon, it is imperative that Catholics recall the coherence and consistency that exists in the Church’s moral teaching. The Catholic bishops’ engagement with migrant communities for more than a century is one arena where this consistency is evident, and which demonstrates a fully consistent Catholic worldview that ought to guide our activity when we encounter the stranger among us.