“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us.”—Pope Francis (Speech to U.S. Congress, September 24, 2015)
Pope Francis’s first pastoral trip outside of Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa in July 2013, where hundreds had died while trying to immigrate into the country. There Pope Francis called out the globalization of indifference, which characterizes a society that lacks compassion for immigrants and refugees. Today we face the worst refugee crisis since World War II with millions of people fleeing violence and war.
His words that day should ring in our ears: “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion — suffering with — others … Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. Has anyone wept? Today, has anyone wept in our world?”
The American bishops have also put this at the top of their agenda. In 2014 and 2015 they celebrated the Eucharist at the U.S.-Mexico border and visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill to lift up the need for comprehensive immigration reform. In 2016 the Pope also visited the border during his trip to Mexico.
The April 2014 trip to the border was particularly poignant. During Mass, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and his brother bishops and priests reached across the border fence to distribute the Eucharist to Mexicans on the other side. The theological message that the bishops communicated was unmistakable. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian life. In the Eucharist, God’s love through Jesus Christ is made fully present to us. Distributing the Eucharist through the fence shows that there are no borders in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, no one is excluded and no one is left behind.
In June 2013 the United States Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill that was supported by the Catholic Church. While the bill increased attention to the border issues, it also provided a pathway to citizenship for aspiring Americans who are undocumented. Sadly, the leadership in the House of Representatives refused to take up the bill.
This current situation is immoral and shameful, especially as for-profit prisons continue to make money from detaining immigrants, families, and children. Furthermore, we continue to fail to address the “push factors” that drive forced migration, such as horrendous violence and poverty in Central America. The 10-20 year wait time for legal immigration in the U.S. is another major injustice.
With the growing terrorism and violence in the Middle East, we must always keep our borders open to refugees in danger’s way.
In light of the terrorist attacks on Paris and throughout the West, some, some have called on the government to focus on accepting Christian refugees from Syria. But there’s nothing Christian about only prioritizing Christian refugees into the U.S. In fact, such an idea flies in the face of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself was an immigrant child in a strange land. When Mary and Joseph were looking for a place for Mary to give birth to Jesus, Bethlehem’s innkeepers denied the Holy Family a hotel for the night. After Jesus’s birth, Mary and Joseph fled with their refugee child to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s despotic rule. They did this even though their Judaism was a visible minority in the North African land full of indigenous and polytheistic beliefs.
If ancient Egypt can make room for refugees of religious minorities, why can’t the U.S. do so today?
God hungers for justice and commands us to welcome the stranger and to bind the wounds of those left by the side of the road. As Catholics who believe in the sanctity of life, we must not be complicit in the suffering of migrants dying in the shadows. We need to go beyond letters and symbols by doing more community organizing and direct resisting of the unjust rhetoric, politics, and structures that implement this unjust immigration and refugee system.
Questions to Consider When Reading About or Listening to Candidates:
- Where does each candidate stand on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? On deportations? On detention of women and children in for-profit prisons?
- How does each candidate challenge anti-immigrant rhetoric?