A Plea to Remember – And To Speak Out For — Our Migrant Brothers and Sisters

Yesterday, The Washington Post ran an article titled “Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removals of ‘millions of illegal aliens’ starting next week”. The article references a Monday night tweet from President Trump that reads, “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States …. They will be removed as fast as they come in.” Though ICE promises to act “with compassion and humanity,” the increasing number of deaths of migrants in US custody (“Six migrant children have died in U.S. custody“) suggests that compassion and humanity is largely absent from any federal dealings with migrants.  Also, as the article points out, though the scale of the operation that Trump promises likely is beyond the actual capacity of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, his tweet nonetheless points to an ongoing attack on and threat to the lives and human dignity of millions of our sisters and brothers.

We at Daily Theology have written on this issue at several points over the past few years: “Being Neighbor in the Crisis of the Prevailing Paradigm: Accompanying Immigrants”, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Permanent Protection for 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants”, See, Judge, Act: The Pastoral Circle and Separation of Families at the Border, “Becoming Mother Hens: A Response to Family Separation at the Border”. But this crisis continues and cannot fade from our work, memories, and activism. Our shared faith calls us, requires us, to speak up for the vulnerable.

To continue our conversation about immigrants and the US, I’m going to draw on a 2003 joint statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Confrencia del Episcopado Mexicano called “Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope”. Though over 15 years old, the statement has implications for our current reality.

The bishops identify five principles that emerge from “the rich tradition of church teachings with regard to migration” and “guide the Church’s view on migration issues”.

1.Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland: All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.

However, many Central and South American countries do not meet these basic needs.  In his article, “Deporting the Heart”, Daniel Groody points out that in many of these countries, the per capita income falls between $4,800 and $7,500, with many people making less. In addition to subsistence living, many people face violence in their everyday lives. Again from Groody: “Violence has made living at home unsustainable. The insecurity stems principally from the coercive and forcible recruiting pressure from gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street. The reach of these gangs is expanding, and they have developed sophisticated networks that infiltrate all sectors of society, including business, government, police, the military, and judicial system.”

2. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families: The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.

No one country has a claim to all of the earth’s resources, which are gifts from God for all to use and share. Though sending countries do share in the responsibility for providing safety and economic opportunities to their people, we cannot overlook the impact that globalization and trade agreements like NAFTA have had on countries like Mexico. Laura Carlsen writes, “As heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other staples poured into Mexico, producer prices dropped and small farmers found themselves unable to make living. Some two million have been forced to leave their farms since Nafta. At the same time, consumer food prices rose, notably the cost of the omnipresent tortilla. As a result, 20 million Mexicans live in ‘food poverty’” (see Under Nafta, Mexico Suffered, and the United States Felt Its Pain”). People who face these types of obstacles to economic and food security have a right to seek security elsewhere.

3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders: The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

This principle is vague and the hardest to interpret. Where is the line drawn between legitimate rights to securing borders and the obligation to welcome and help the migrant? Though the bishops don’t provide an exact answer here, recent statements by the USCCB suggest that the bishops believe that the Trump administration is abusing claims to sovereignty at the expense of the lives and dignity of migrants. See, for example, “Statement Regarding Their Deep Concern about Restricting Access to Asylum”, “President of U.S. Bishops and Chairman of Migration Issue Statement on President’s Proposed Immigration Reform Plan”, and “A Statement from Daniel Cardinal DiNardo”.  These statements criticized immigration plans that sought to shrink family-based immigration and that did not create space for Dreamers. In response to Trump’s move to prevent people arriving at the US/Mexico border from receiving asylum unless they requested it at a legal point of entry, the bishops write “While our teaching acknowledges the right of each nation to regulate its borders, we find this action deeply concerning. It will restrict and slow access to protection for hundreds of children and families fleeing violence in Central America, potentially leaving them in unsafe conditions in Mexico or in indefinite detention situations at the U.S./Mexico border. We reiterate that it is not a crime to seek asylum and this right to seek refuge is codified in our laws and values” (“Statement Regarding”).

4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection: Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

As noted above, the Trump administration’s policies have made seeking asylum – an already difficult practice – even more difficult, though requests for asylum in the US have continued to grow. Generally, people can seek asylum if they can show that “they’ve suffered persecution or have a legitimate fear they will face persecution in the future” due to race, nationality, religion, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular social group” (see “What is Asylum? Who is Eligible? Why Do Recent Changes Matter?”). However, during the Obama administration, people could also seek asylum based on claims of threats from domestic violence and gang violence, both of which former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overruled. Claims for asylum should be broadened and made easier to afford protection of lives and human dignity.

5. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected: Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.

Regardless of laws or status, all migrants deserve respect and protection. Detention centers currently are overflowing, with ICE “housing” some migrants under bridge overpasses and empty parking lots. Other migrants are housed in severely overcrowded detention centers, divided by fences that critics call “cages” (see “ICE Faces Migrant Detention Crunch as Border Chaos Spills Into Interior of the Country” and ““Overcrowding and Food Shortages, Migrants Complain of Conditions at U.S. Holding Centers”).

And children, the most innocent and vulnerable of all, continue to die.

*Featured image taken by Tamir Kalifa of The New York Times.