Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, invoked the social teaching of multiple popes in a plea for Congress to address the “humanitarian crisis” of unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S.
“The Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image,” the bishop stated in his June 25 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
“In modern times, popes over the last 100 years have developed the Church’s teaching on migration,” he added, quoting Pope Pius XII and Pope Saint John Paul II before citing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
“In Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father speaks particularly of the importance of work with migrants and notes that it is essential for Catholics ‘to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability [including migrants and refugees] in which we are called to recognize the suffering of Christ’.”
Bishop Seitz said the increase in unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S. since 2011 has been “unprecedented.” He explained that many of them are fleeing “ongoing generalized violence” in their home countries, calling the situation a “humanitarian crisis” that “is getting more urgent.”
The bishop noted that previous popes have defended the right to migrate. Pope Pius XII made clear that everyone has the “right to migrate” if their present condition is unworthy of human life, and Pope Saint John Paul II upheld this right “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
He also observed that “one of Jesus’ first experiences as an infant was to flee for his life from King Herod with his family to Egypt. Indeed, Jesus Himself was a child migrant fleeing violence. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were asylum-seekers and faced the same choice as the one facing thousands of children fleeing to the United States each year.”
According to U.S. officials, the numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border illegally has doubled in the past year, and more than 250 minors are being apprehended on the country’s southern border each day.
Most of the migrants hail from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, where the rates of violence are extremely high.
“Extortion, family abuse and instability, kidnapping, threats, and coercive and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations and gangs have become part of everyday life in all of these countries,” Bishop Seitz stated, adding that this has “created a culture of fear and hopelessness that has pushed children out of their communities and into forced transit situations.”
He recounted the story of one 16-year-old girl in El Salvador who had received death threats against herself and her family after witnessing a fellow student’s murder at the hands of a criminal gang. Although her family moved to the countryside, the gang found her, and eventually, she was forced to flee to the United States in order to protect her life.
In addition, many children come to the United States in an attempt to escape domestic abuse and violence, the bishop noted, citing a UNICEF survey indicating that 7 in 10 unaccompanied children reported abuse in their homes.
Bishop Seitz emphasized that the authorities must let religious groups and individuals minister to these children once they have arrived at the border patrol stations and shelters, noting that various requests to do so have been denied.
“Mr. Chairman, these vulnerable children should have access to pastoral services, including visitation by religious, including priests, ministers, and other faith leaders. To date, requests for visitation to the border patrol stations and shelters for this purpose has been denied by the Border Patrol and ICE.”
Among the bishop’s recommendations to Congress were investments in family reunification programs and efforts to address the root causes of violence in the countries from which migrants are coming. Some of the anti-violence programs could provide “job and educational opportunities and training programs.”
Congress must address the root causes of migration, Bishop Seitz stressed, because to simply deport the minors “is akin to sending these children back into a burning building they just fled.”