The immigration debate rarely lays dormant in the United States, but the arrival of some 52,000 migrant children from Latin America since October and the resulting crisis have brought tensions to a boiling point. The complicated circumstances boil down two core issues: long-term immigration reform and dealing with the situation in the here and now. The question we must ask, putting party alliances and political leanings aside, is this: what is the Christian approach to these problems?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” It seems that the US would fall into the “more prosperous nations” category when compared with the Latin American countries in question. However, this welcome is not without conditions, for the Catechism also states, “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws, and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” And therein lies the struggle for many US citizens.
A country has a right to secure borders for the protection its citizens. In an age of terrorism, we need to screen who comes in and out of our country. However, the majority of people wishing to enter our country has no malicious intent at all, but merely want to live in a place with more opportunities and greater safety. In an ideal situation, qualified to-be immigrants would have a speedy, streamlined process through which they could enter the US, but such a process does not currently exist. The system is backlogged, overloaded, and inefficient.
So do we need long-term immigration reform? Yes. Our country, built by immigrants, needs a functional system with proper screening processes so that its cultural richness can continue to grow. Some do reject the value of immigration often pointing to economic impact. The fear of foreigners taking American job is founded more in emotional rhetoric than in actual fact, to which the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church attests: “These people come from less privileged areas of the earth and their arrival in developed countries is often perceived as a threat to the high levels of well-being achieved thanks to decades of economic growth. In most cases, however, immigrants fill a labor need which would otherwise remain unfilled in sectors and territories where the local workforce is insufficient or unwilling to engage in the work in question.” The mix of cultures is one of the things that makes our country so beautiful, and as a Church bearing the name “universal” we must recognize that.
Turning to the current crisis of migrant children, the Christian must look at the dignity of each of these human beings and the backgrounds from which they come. The increasing violence on account of the drug trade, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has created unsuitable living conditions and thus, the illegal immigration into our country. On account of this, it seems that many of them will qualify for refugee status and, in turn, the Church acknowledges Her special call to help them as one human family. As the Compendium states, “The Church is close to them [refugees] not only with her pastoral presence and material support, but also with her commitment to defend their human dignity.” Many are concerned about the financial burden this crisis may place on our already strained government. Yet billions of US dollars are spent on foreign humanitarian aid each year, and now we have a humanitarian crisis right our front door. Government aid seems justified, but it can’t stop there. The generosity of Christians in both the spiritual and material realms must help supplement relief efforts for these children.
As for security, we need to keep in mind who these children are. They are not hardened terrorists. They wish no harm on our country. They are children. They have hopes and dreams, and many are leaving home simply because they want to reach adulthood. Our broken immigration system can’t serve them and, thus, families faced with violence and unrest in their home countries are taking desperate measures to give their children a better life. Will their presence here create a possible “foothold” for their families to come into our country later? Maybe. Could giving them exile encourage illegal immigration? Maybe. But this doesn’t trump the fact that there are children in our midst in need of help. They need Christians to open their hearts and maybe even their homes. They need a welcome that will calm their fears and anxieties rather than exacerbate them. They need the people of the US, especially Christians, to see them for who they are: children trying to survive.
The journey they have taken to the US is a perilous one. Efforts must be made to discourage Latin Americans from trying to make it in the future, while trying to regularize the situations in their home countries. As Pope Francis recently said, "This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected. These measures, however, will not be sufficient, unless they are accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and, above all, that promote development in their countries of origin." So these preventative efforts do not nullify our duty to those already in our midst. Most of us do not hold positions in which we can easily transform the situation in other countries, but we can affect the situation on this side of the border.
Having worked in parishes with large Hispanic immigrant populations, I’ve seen the great gift they can be for a community. We cannot fail to recognize that the majority of these children are Catholic. The deep devotion, ingrained piety, and generous spirit of the Latin American people are an inspiration. While the mixing of cultures can pose difficulties, when they are addressed and faced head on, a multi-ethic parish can be one of the greatest testaments to the universality of the Church.
Whether or not we agree with how these children arrived in our country, the fact of the matter is that they are here. I fail to see how standing in front of buses with picket signs, blocking these children’s passage to aid facilities, is in accord with the call of a Christian and the teachings the Church has laid out for us. These children need love. They need support. They need the Church to live out Her calling.