With great trepidation and inordinate apprehension, I am finally attempting to tackle this very complicated and impassioned issue for many Americans, the immigration of thousands of young people to the southern border of the United States. My perspective is from a Catholic point of view, more specifically from a Catholic priest who shepherds Latinos at St. Patrick Church in Norristown.
More than one-third of all Catholics in the United States are of Hispanic descent, and that number is growing. This ethnic group makes up more than 16 percent of the entire U.S. population, and nearly one out of every four children in the United States under 18 years of age is Latino.
In recent months more than 50,000 children have crossed our borders, sent by desperate parents to escape poverty and violence in their home countries. These children have made dangerous treks riding atop freight trains and in other cases led by “coyotes,” or smugglers, who were paid by parents. Some of these “coyotes” rob and even kill their young customers in addition to overcharging them. Not all of the youngsters survive the treacherous and arduous journey through two or more countries.
This situation at the border with the arrival of many children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has caused chaos and serious conflicts, and has also created a grave humanitarian challenge to each one of us, as the U.S. government decides what to do with these children.
Through no fault of their own, these vulnerable children are caught between two worlds without parental guidance. If we are not moved by the suffering of children, what then will cause us to really care? Is the crisis one of indifference? Cardinal O’Malley from Boston recently stated in a homily at Mass on the border between Mexico and the United States, “We have lost a sense of responsibility to our brothers and sisters.”
So, as Catholics and citizens of the United States the issue of immigration should be of deep concern for us. Jesus Christ teaches us that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God and each person has God-given dignity and rights. The human right is the foundation of every other right as liberty and the pursuit of happiness are universal and inalienable, as described in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. At a minimum certain things are required like food, shelter, clothing and the means of a decent living.
If one person or a family cannot attain life’s necessities in one’s home country — due to violence, political problems, economic despair, religious persecution or other issues that are against human dignity — then one should be free to migrate to another country. In Catholic social teaching, immigration is a “natural right.” That means that it is universal and inalienable. However, immigrants are required to respect and abide by the laws in the countries where they go and reside.
Catholic thinking also assures the sovereignty of every nation to secure its borders and make rules and decisions about whom and how many foreigners each government allows into each nation. I also support just and appropriate penalties for those who could eventually legalize their status. Such penalties might include community service to help clean up parks, paint over graffiti, store up food in food cupboards for the poor, aid the sick and the elderly, etc.
America has its laws to create a just nation, but we must remember that we are all children of immigrants and in addition, we are known throughout the world for being generous, merciful and forgiving.
As Catholics we need to protect these children at our borders and keep them from falling into the hands of human traffickers or other dangers. We need to welcome them and give them a sense of security. We should not follow the example of the crowds of immigration protesters who blocked buses filled with refugees in California, shouted obscenities and waved signs that read, “Return to Sender!” and “We do not want you here!”
We cannot forget that these are children of God, who are also just young kids — no different than our own sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, godchildren and cousins. We need to remember that these are innocent children, who are lonely, frightened and far from home, caught up in circumstances that they did not create or control.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for our government to treat the children kindly and justly. They recently issued a statement that reads, “the prospect of sending vulnerable children back into the hands of violent criminals in their countries raises troubling questions about our moral character.”
Just this past week Pope Francis made an appeal for all governments and its citizens to receive refugees throughout the world with dignity emphasizing that “Jesus was a refugee who had to flee to save his life. He went to Egypt with Joseph and Mary.”
The pope went on to teach that a change of attitude is needed — toward migrants and refugees on the part of everyone, moving away from “attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization toward attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”
He also added that the measures of kindness and love must also be accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and above all to promote development and peace in their countries of origin. This challenge, according to him, demands the attention of the entire world so that new forms of legal, secure and peaceful migration may be adopted.
In 2008 the U.S. Congress passed a law with bipartisan support that provides legal protection to people from countries, such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, when they cross the border. Each undocumented immigrant from these countries has the right to have his case heard at an immigration hearing. If the situation in one’s home country is deemed dangerous then the undocumented person may be allowed to remain in this country. Due to this legislation, most of these children have a right to a hearing to decide their case.
However, right now our first and principal task is to help the traumatized children. As the Gospel tells us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). We must clothe the strangers, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, reunite them with families when possible and give them legal representation to help decide their chances of receiving refugee status or asylum.
Catholic Charities is presently at the border providing material needs for the immigrants, but we need to pray and give spiritual support to them. At the same time in this global economy which is our world, our government should work with other governments abroad to solve the root problems of violence, poverty and instability.
This humanitarian crisis requires a compassionate and reasoned response, appropriate to its complexity. As Catholics we need to continue to pray, reach out and lend a hand to those in need and do so, as Pope Francis explained, “… without worrying about the cost, without fear, but with tenderness and understanding.” This crisis should be seen as a challenge, an opportunity for us to show our care and love, and not our indifference, in order to protect and promote the dignity of every human being but especially the most vulnerable, that is, our children.
May Our Lady of Guadalupe, the “Patroness of all the Americas,” help us to understand better this crisis so that we might have the courage to answer Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger!
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.