by Ed Mechmann
There can be no real doubt that the situation on America’s southern border, particularly in Texas, has reached crisis levels.
Record numbers of families have come to the border without legal authorization to enter the United States. The detention centers that house these people are overwhelmed, and a government watchdog has found that the conditions in some facilities have become dangerous to both the residents and the staffs. The separation of children from their families has caused wide-spread outrage.
The causes of this crisis are like a Gordian Knot. There are so many interrelated moving parts — social disorder and violence in their home countries, liberal U.S. laws governing asylum applications, deliberate policies by government agencies to detain people punitively to deter further migration, the insufficiency of current visa programs, inadequate funding, court staffing shortages, and much more.
Any policy responses will have to be incredibly complex. Of course, the laws that are already on the books have to be enforced, and we cannot accept all who come to our shores. Other nations have an obligation to correct the social conditions that are causing people to flee. Everyone agrees that our immigration and asylum laws are in desperate need of reform, yet our government has a lamentable history of failure in getting the job done. Surely the rancid partisanship that has infected our body politic is largely to blame for our inability to even talk about these issues in a constructive way.
That is where we as Catholic Americans can make a unique and important contribution to this crisis. Because of the rich heritage of Catholic social teaching, we can transcend the partisan divisiveness and look at the problem from an entirely new perspective. By doing this, we can focus on the human dimension of the issue, which will help us to unlock some parts of the policy problem.
The foundational step for us to take is to make sure that we always focus on the humanity of those we are speaking about. It’s all too easy to dismiss those at the border as “aliens”, “illegals” or “invaders”, or even worse. It has become a reflex for people to reject reports that challenge their settled views as “fake news”. Tribalism is becoming more influential than facts. Emotionally-loaded terms like “concentration camps” only inflame things. Insensitivity and even cruelty are becoming mainstream. I see all this every time I post a piece about immigration on our Office Facebook page.
That’s not the Catholic way. This is the Good Samaritan moment — recognizing that we are speaking about human beings, made in the image and likeness of God and loved by him, people whom we are commanded repeatedly to love, and people who are in desperate need of help.
If we can shift the rhetoric of this debate even the smallest step in this direction, we will have succeeded greatly in creating an environment for policy solutions to be developed in a rational, human-centered way. Here’s an example from Pope Francis this last weekend:
In the spirit of the Beatitudes we are called to comfort them in their affliction and offer them mercy; to sate their hunger and thirst for justice; to let them experience God’s caring fatherliness; to show them the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues! “This is not just about migrants”, in the twofold sense that migrants are first of all human persons, and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society. (Homily at the Holy Mass for Migrants, July 8, 2019)
Is there anyone in American politics who speaks like this? That’s why we must step into the breach. Unless we start speaking about the people involved in this crisis in that way, no decent policy solutions will ever be adopted.
We Catholics should also remember that this loving solicitude for migrants is not something revolutionary and unprecedented. It is strongly based in Sacred Scripture and has been repeatedly proclaimed by the Church. For example, in the aftermath of World War II and the dislocation after the foundation of the State of Israel, Venerable Pope Pius XII made a powerful statement about the duty to care for and accept people who are fleeing to another country because of the conditions in their home:
You know indeed how preoccupied we have been and with what anxiety we have followed those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands. The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this. (Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952)
I have no illusions about the charged political environment in the United States right now. I get that the increasing abortion radicalism of certain factions in the Democratic Party, as well as their growing hostility to religious freedom, is a grave threat to life, dignity and freedom. I understand that we need to keep our main focus on the direct threats to human life like abortion and assisted suicide, and that any other activism might dilute our effectiveness.
But I also think that Catholics and pro-lifers can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that this moment is an opportunity for some real Christian public witness. Religious leaders from across the nation have been decrying the inhumane conditions at some of the border detention centers. Staunch pro-life groups like New Wave Feminists have been going to the border to help the over-stretched Catholic Charities workers in providing material support to those in detention. Scholars like Fordham Prof. Charles Camosy are providing the intellectual framework for a genuine Consistent Life Ethic that protects human life and dignity at all stages and conditions. More needs to be done.
There’s no question that the policy responses to this crisis are difficult. But that’s no excuse for us as Catholics to shirk our duty to humanize and evangelize our public square and to focus on the real-life people who are stuck in the middle of this crisis. Yes, laws need to be reformed and enforced, but there are a lot of people on the border who could use a little kindness in the midst of their misery.
After all, we have it on good authority that showing mercy is not optional, but is mandatory.