Catholics' mission in immigration debate: avoid false divides

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As immigration debate continues under the Trump administration, one bishop has stressed the need for Catholics to make sure their political activity avoids false divisions and keeps faith with Christ.

"Catholics have a responsibility to enter into the discussion about immigration in a serious way, and we have a decisive mission to sanctify the discourse that permeates the political process,"said Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville.

He did not take for granted that Catholics are engaged in immigration discussion as Catholics.

"We have far to go," he said.

Bishop Flores spoke at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. March 28 in a lecture titled "The Politics of Human Dignity, Catholics and Immigration." He spoke amid heightened controversy over U.S. immigration policy under the presidency of Donald Trump, whose campaign focused on strong immigration restrictions and more limits on refugees.

For Bishop Flores, public discussion about immigration and immigrants shows American culture lacks the resources needed to engage in significant moral discussion.

"We churn like a perpetually stationary hurricane sitting in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

He described the debate as mainly "a perpetual battle of narratives." The discussion doesn't aim to find rational judgement about what is best to do about immigration. Each side presents its view of the facts, which fails to persuade the other side. Each side then appeals to its motivational sentiments, then finds fault among its rivals.

The Catholic approach, however, is "integrative" and takes into account various priorities within a larger context.

"Love of country and the pursuit of justice within a sovereign nation need not be seen as exclusive of charity and justice for a suffering immigrant population that is either already here, or is seeking entry," the bishop said.

While American culture is very individualistic, a Catholic cannot say of others, "that is none of our nation's concern."

Bishop Flores cited a 2003 joint letter on migration from the U.S. and Mexican bishops which said persons have a fundamental right to find opportunities in their homeland. They should be able to live and raise their families, work, and enjoy security and education and other basic goods in their native land.

However, there are many places were these conditions don't exist.

"Immigration tends to happen when people do not judge they have a chance to survive and raise a family in their native place," Bishop Flores said. Immigration is often the most realistic human response to "a moment of crisis" involving hardship and fear.

"Today, immigrants are often pawns in a harsh power-game that involves governments on one side and criminality and corruption on the other," he said. "In some parts of the world the distinction between the two is not so easy to see."

Sovereign control of borders is a good thing, but it is not absolute, and "gives way in view of the right of persons to survive," he stated.

Bishop Flores rejected an immigration policy based on "purely economic criteria."

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"The fact of global economic displacements, of war or lawless violence in numerous parts of the world must be addressed in a way that reflects a realistic response to a proximate threat to human life and its proximate goods," he said.

The bishop stressed the foundational role of the family and the U.S. bishops' longtime effort to oppose deportations that result in the separation of parents and children.

"If families are separated, the whole fabric of the culture unravels," he warned. "The breakdown of the family structure vitiates the social good because it directly affects the formation of the young."

Framing the discussion around crimes and misdeeds of some immigrants is often a rhetorical "short-cut" to genuine discussion. Rather, Bishop Flores advocated a generous response to immigrants that can also accommodate legitimate concerns for stopping criminal elements.

"A great many immigrants that I know are seeking permission to stay in the United States because they are fleeing the very same kinds of criminal elements and activities that we rightly do not want causing harm here," he said.

"One of the tragedies of the mutually exclusive narratives, and of our anemic discourse is that we do not currently have a legal way to distinguish between immigrants who are fleeing criminals, and immigrants who are criminals."

Bishop Flores recounted the story of a 16-year-old Honduran teen whose parents were either dead or gone. The teen had been deported from Mexico and had sought entry to the U.S. five times, for fear of deadly gangs.

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"He wanted to have a life, he said, a job, maybe a little house and get married," the bishop recounted. "And if he didn't make it to the U.S., he would try to live in Mexico. At least there, he said, you can have a life. I think of this young man often."

The bishop said he wanted to tell the teen's story not to stir sentiments, but to let people know that there are hundreds of thousands like him who live "at the edge of human society."

"They are the ones told there is no room for you here, and there is no room for you anywhere else," Bishop Flores said. "He is just one young man. But our political activity as Catholics must keep faith with him if we are to keep faith with Christ."

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