An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and child behind chains, used during the process at the Catholic Day of Action against child detention in Newark, NJ (Sept. 2019)
Director, Columban Center for Adovcacy and Outreach
September 29 marks the World Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees. On this day, Pope Francis has a special message to share with us. It could not have come at a more crucial time.
Across the globe, more and more people are leaving their homes, fleeing violence and conflict. Droughts and floods linked to climate change are ruining their fields and crops, and transnational mining companies are ravaging their homes and environment. Entire families and villages are risking their lives crossing unfriendly borders and dangerous seas, seeking asylum. They are being met by hostile police and well-armed military who see them as invaders and threats.
For several years now, we have witnessed a biblical Exodus of migrant and refugee families from Central America and Mexico, as well as from many other nations, journeying to our southern border to seek asylum. They have been met with “Zero Tolerance,” the name given to these harsh and cruel policies by the current administration. Families have been separated and children have been detained in subhuman conditions on the border. The long-term effects of such separation and detention on children is one of life-long trauma, impacts felt by their parents as well. Such cruelty permanently harms these children and their families, and ought to make us ashamed.
I have personally witnessed that trauma, in several visits to the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, TX and Corpus Christi parish in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I remember a little boy who appeared to be about five-years-old, who took off his shoes to reveal severely blistered feet as his father looked on in anguish. The boy was 11, not 5, and showed what appeared to be the tragic consequences on child development of severe malnutrition. Hunger is prevalent in the Guatemalan highlands and other parts of Central America, as changing weather patterns due to climate change are destroying crops and ruining livelihoods. Migration is not just about opportunity, it’s about survival. People are not only fleeing violence; they are escaping hunger.
In El Paso, I witnessed the courage and solidarity of this border community and the network of the churches and organizations organized by Annunciation House to minister to these traumatized families. Every day an amazing network of volunteers and churches receives hundreds of asylum-seeking families and children released after days of detention in overcrowded and freezing conditions, as they help them on their way to reunite with families across the United States and pursue their asylum claims. In a generous gesture of hospitality, Bishop Mark Seitz has also opened the doors of diocesan buildings to welcome and shelter these migrant families and children.
Now, however, all that has changed drastically, as migrants and refugees seeking asylum are prevented from crossing the border to ask for asylum and are forcibly kept on the Mexico side of the border, part of the “Remain in Mexico” policy of the current administration. In addition, migrants and refugees are being held up at the Guatemalan – Mexican border by the Mexican army, a further attempt by the both governments to deny them asylum.
He offers us a simple message: Be faithful to the Gospel. Be people of compassion and hope:
“Our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Yet these verbs do not apply only to migrants and refugees. They describe the Church’s mission to all those living in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. If we put those four verbs into practice, we will help build the city of God and man. We will promote the integral human development of all people. We will also help the world community to come closer to the goals of sustainable development that it has set for itself and that, lacking such an approach, will prove difficult to achieve.”
At a time when we are witnessing our government build walls on the US – Mexico border and close the door to refugees and asylum-seekers everywhere, we need to pause and ask: “Why have our hearts grow so cold? Why are we so afraid?”
There are intentions here, that become habits and patterns of cruelty, injustice, inhumanity, and in violation of laws meant to protect the poor and vulnerable, not to punish and abuse them.
Recently, the National Immigrant Justice Center put out “A Timeline of the Trump Administration’s Efforts to End Asylum.” It is like a huge mosaic, filled with the cries and faces of migrant and refugee children and families. Up close, you only see harsh and cruel actions, but when you step back, you see a pattern, an intention based on the worst of human behavior and prejudice and when backed by institutional power and racist rhetoric, it becomes a nightmare.
These policies began right after the inauguration in January 2017 with an Executive Order putting forth a blueprint for many anti-asylum and anti-immigrant policies, including the construction of a border wall, the banning of Muslims, prolonged and indefinite detention, zero-tolerance and family separation, the turning back of asylum-seekers and the undercutting of protections provided to unaccompanied children, as well as the further militarizing of the border and speeding up of deportations.
Why, then, have our hearts grow so cold? Why are we so afraid?
Recently, I visited a moving exhibition at the Philip’s Modern Art Museum in Washington D.C. called “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” The phrase is from Richard Wright, an African American writer who experienced and wrote about the migration of six million African Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North in the first half of the twentieth century. Like the migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, or those from Africa and the Middle East, they were driven by both survival and opportunity, seeking “the warmth of other suns,” human warmth, empathy, solidarity, human compassion and embrace to acknowledge their plight and our common humanity.
I saw pictures of human wreckage, of boats washed up on foreign shores, or clothes and personal articles abandoned in deserts. I saw the faces of children, heard the pleas and cries of desperate women and men seeking refuge, or a young deaf and mute Arab child captured on camera, gesturing about what he had experienced in his refugee journey fleeing the horrors of war.
I also saw several groups of young children sitting on the floor with their teachers, as they were learning about what it is to be a migrant or refugee today. Their beautiful faces reflected the beautiful diversity of their families who live now in our nation’s capital, immigrant families from every continent in the world.
What have we done to our sister? What have we done to our brother? God’s question to Cain is as poignant and relevant today as it was when it was posed in book of Genesis. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with reminders to treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger with compassion, “for you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). The Gospel reminds us: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
One wall at the exhibition was covered with the beautiful and desperate faces of refugees who passed through Ellis Island between 1890 and 1950. Today, more than 100 million people in the United States are descendants of those refugees, 40 per cent of our population. Unless we are Native American or African America, we are all immigrants who came to this country fleeing persecution or looking for opportunity. Why have we become so afraid and lacking in compassion to those who now come after us, also fleeing persecution and looking for opportunity? Why are we so afraid?
That is one of the themes of Pope Francis’ Pastoral Letter for the World Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees: “It’s not just about migrants,” he says. “It is also about our fears … it’s about charity … it’s about our humanity … It’s a question of seeing that no one is excluded … of putting the last in first place … it’s about the whole person, about all people … and building the city of God.”
In his message, Pope Francis reminds us that migrants and refugees, especially those who are most vulnerable, help us “to read the signs of the times.” What are those signs? “Violent conflicts and all-out wars continue to tear humanity apart; injustices and discrimination follow one upon the other; economic and social imbalances on a local or global scale prove difficult to overcome.”
In this scenario, “migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion.” By their very presence – and more often than not they are hidden from view – migrants and refugees invite us “to recover essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity.”
But we find ourselves in a world and in a country torn apart by division and violence, especially when we hear every day from our president and other politicians that we are facing “an invasion on our southern border,” and migrants are portrayed as criminals and threats to our security.
Pope Francis’ response is sobering: “It’s not just about migrants; it is also about our fears.” We are living “in fear of the other, the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner.” Across the globe and in our own country, “We see this today in particular, faced with the arrival of migrants and refugees knocking on our door in search of protection, security, and a better future.”
What is the anecdote for fear? St. Augustine says: “Hope has two daughters: anger and courage.” The first is a human response of indignation in the face of cruelty and oppression; the second a civic virtue that we must cultivate and encourage in ourselves and in others. In the face of fear, we must place love and compassion, but that requires both anger at the way things are, and courage to change them. Above all, we need God’s grace: “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
“It’s not just about migrants,” the pope reminds us, “it is also about charity.” “It is about the face we want to give to our society and about the value of each human life… The progress of our peoples… depends above all on our openness to being touched and moved by those who knock at our door. Their faces shatter and debunk all those false idols that can take over and enslave our lives; idols that promise illusory and momentary happiness blind to the lives and sufferings of others.”
Above all, our response to this global crisis “is not just about migrants; it is about our humanity.” Pope Francis often speaks of becoming a prophetic and Samaritan church, a church moved by compassion to go to the margins where the poor are suffering, and there to embrace and serve those who are oppressed and excluded from our societies: “It’s not just about migrants; it is a question of seeing that no one is excluded.” In the pope’s judgment, those who will be judged at the Last Judgment are not just individual persons, but entire nations:
“Today’s world is increasingly becoming more elitist and cruel towards the excluded. Developing countries continue to be drained of their best natural and human resources for the benefit of a few privileged markets. Wars only affect some regions of the world, yet weapons of war are produced and sold in other regions which are then unwilling to take in the refugees produced by these conflicts. Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable, who are prevented from sitting at the table and are left with the “crumbs” of the banquet (cf. Lk 16:19-21).”
What kind of world do we want to live in? Even more, what kind of world are we leaving to our children? In Pope Francis’ words:
“We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. They are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community” (Message for the 2014 World Day of Migrants and Refugees).
That is the challenge we face together, in our families, in our communities, in our nation, and across the world. Ultimately, “it’s not just about the migrants,” it is about our humanity and our fidelity to the Gospel.
At a time when we are witnessing our government build walls on the US – Mexico border and close the door to refugees and asylum-seekers everywhere, we need to pause and ask: “Why have our hearts grow so cold? Why are we so afraid?"
Copyright © 2022 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.