On his first official trip outside of Rome, Pope Francis travelled to the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which has become a critical transit point for countless thousands of African migrants fleeing unspeakable horrors in their homelands and hoping to find a better life on European shores. In a highly symbolic mass there, he spoke of how the plight of these migrants remains “a thorn in the heart” of the global community, describing the worldwide “disorientation” that is sickening us as a human family, referring to it as “the globalization of indifference.” By this he meant our ever-diminishing capacity to empathize with the suffering of others, particularly migrants and refugees, who, according to recent statistics, include approximately 232 million international migrants and 43 million uprooted victims of conflict.
Alarmed by this human crisis and troubled by the apathy of “receiving nations” to the unacceptable suffering of migrants and refugees worldwide, the Catholic Church has been calling for increased reflection on how to more effectively advocate for migrant justice, and more broadly speaking, how to revitalize the human spirit of compassion for the least of these. The Church has been an active voice for comprehensive immigration reform that would include earned legalization for the estimated eleven million undocumented people living in the US, an emphasis on the moral imperative of family unification, a guest worker program, restoration of due process rights for those in detention, an expedited path to legality for the DREAMers, and humane border enforcement policies.
This soul-searching work was the motivation behind a recent conference at the University of Notre Dame, “The Church and Immigration,” which brought together key public policy leaders, pastoral workers, scholars and long-time advocates working on the frontlines of the issue. Hosted by the Institute for Latino Studies, the aim of the conference was to reflect critically on how the Church has worked for migrant justice in the past, what it is doing now, and to strategize how it might improve its outreach to migrants and refugees and effectively promote immigration reform.
Drawing from a rich theological repository, the Catholic Church has a long history of advocacy, pastoral care, and assistance for migrants, immigrants, refugees, and people on the move. This welcoming tradition is rooted in Catholic social teaching that highlights the biblical call to love the stranger and provide hospitality for those in need, the myriad stories throughout the Old and New Testaments concerning the forced migrations of the oppressed and persecuted, and the idea that all people are made equally in the image of God.
The Catholic Church has continued to serve as a pioneer of migrant and refugee justice, perhaps today more so than ever, challenging all of us- individual citizens, state agencies, federal governments, and international communities- to heed the moral imperative to help our migrant, immigrant and refugee sisters and brothers. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Service (MRS) is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the United States, helping to bring 17,844 refugees to the U.S. in 2012 alone. MRS also works indefatigably to protect and integrate unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, many of whom are fleeing forced recruitment by criminal gangs, extreme violence, poverty and abuse, or who are left behind by parents that migrate for economic reasons. The organization is also deeply committed to combating modern day slavery by providing anti-trafficking services and national education campaigns on the issue.
The conference at Notre Dame reaffirmed The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) three principles concerning immigration, the first being the overriding belief that “When a person cannot achieve a meaningful life in his or her own land, that person has the right to move.” While the second principle supports the right of a country “to regulate its borders and control immigration,” the third principle asserts that even so, “a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.”
While acknowledging a nation’s right to control its borders for the purpose of the common good, conference participants expressed dismay over current US border and immigration policies, citing the record number of deportations in recent years, which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of family separations; the countless migrants who have died or gone missing as a result of heightened security measures; the inhumane treatment of migrant and immigrant detainees at detention centers; the lack of due process occurring as a result of fast-track mass trials of apprehended migrants; and the rhetoric of fear and disdain that has led to legislative deadlock concerning immigration reform.
While it may be easy to despair in the face of such bleak circumstances, or to cave into the sickness of indifference plaguing the immigration debate, many conference participants struck a hopeful note, such as Kevin Appleby, Director of Migration Policy at MRS, who stated that immigration reform is inevitable. It will take sustained effort and visionary thinking, but Appleby believes support for immigrant and refugee rights is on the upswing, a conviction corroborated by a March 2014 Pew study that shows broad support by Millennials for a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
The example of Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a former undocumented immigrant and farm worker turned brain surgeon, and one of the conference speakers, illuminates the inspiring and diverse ways that immigrants enrich our lives. As Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies, said, “The immigrant you support today might be the brain surgeon who saves your life, or the life of your loved one, tomorrow.”
Perhaps, at its most optimistic, the challenges of immigration reform and of mass global migration can provide us with the opportunity to readjust our priorities and recall what some of the greatest religious and ethical teachings have said about the fundamental moral imperative of welcoming the stranger, and to let those teachings challenge us to choose hope over fear, empathy over indifference, and gratitude rather than bigotry.
Ananda Rose is author of Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law and the Immigration Controversy, published by Oxford University. She holds a doctorate in Religion and Society from Harvard University and is currently writing a second book on migrant deaths in south Texas.