Separated families and lost children have been in the news these past days. However, the pictures and reports are no mere talking points, tweet material, or the triumph of tough policies – these are human lives in need, whom I got to meet personally.
Last week, I joined a group of volunteer attorneys to visit Nogales, Ariz. port of entry to support migrants who have been waiting at the border for days to be admitted to seek asylum. I was already in Tucson for the 30th annual “convening” of CLINIC – the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. I traveled to Nogales with some of the CLINIC staff who are lawyers. I went as the Chair of the Board of CLINIC, as a Bishop and pastor.
The lawyers got to work listening to cases, screening for possible options; I spoke with families, children, mothers, offering a word of encouragement, but mostly a listening ear and a friendly presence. As I mentioned above, I had come to town for a conference of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. God had additional plans: a visit from a pastor for those in need of comfort, and a visit with Jesus present to me in migrants and refugees at the border.
It doesn’t take much to have a heart for migrants and refugees, once you meet them. Children, women and families, all desperately seeking safety, protection and a future – something any of us might do for our loved ones were we in the same situation. That is, if we had the courage and fortitude that I see in the faces of these families. The scapegoating of migrants is not new, as there is an unfortunate history of that here in the United States with groups such as the “Know Nothings” and the “Klu Klux Klan” (here in our Diocese in Anaheim at one time), but for all the excuses it persists as a refusal of the life and dignity of human persons.
That’s why the Catholic Church stands unequivocally with migrants and refugees, as has been the history of all who have come to our country over the years. I want to say it’s not political, but that’s not quite right. One just needs to look at the offensive and personally insulting comments that are made even when posting something so innocent as a picture that a migrant child drew for me. No, it is political, but it’s not – or rather it should not be – partisan. It’s political in the sense that it has do to with what kind of people we want to be, how we want to treat the most needy and marginalized right in front of us, how we want to treat people with dignity and work together for the common good.
As Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Church in America can rightfully praise the accomplishment of past generations in bringing together widely differing immigrant groups within the unity of the Catholic faith and in a common commitment to the spread of the Gospel. At the same time, conscious of its rich diversity, the Catholic community in this country has come to appreciate ever more fully the importance of each individual and group offering its own particular gifts to the whole.”
If you are a Christian, or other person of faith and good will, and you struggle to see why the Church talks so much about immigrants, consider how you might begin to learn more about the issues and get to know the people. There’s plenty of “fake news” about migrants, whether simplifying complex realities or scapegoating and painting all migrants with a broad-brush, based on a few isolated and tragic cases. One great place to start is by connecting with the global “Share the Journey” (sharejourney.org) campaign initiated by Pope Francis and supported in the U.S. by Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, and the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Jesus said that the way we welcome the stranger and the foreigner, the migrant and the refugee, is the way that we welcome him. The Church has a great deal of teaching about immigration. But our hearts break when we look face to face with women, men, and children looking for help, heartbroken and waiting for those who will help and accompany them, as Pope Francis would say. Let’s find a way.
+ Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange