A pastor of a parish in a colonia in South Texas told me this story. He and a group of his parishoners had just read the Gospel passage in which John’s disciples ask Jesus if He is “who is to come?” (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus tells them: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.”
The priest asked for reflections and, after a pause, a young woman offered that the previous week she had crossed the Rio Grande. When she reached the U.S. side, she saw a Border Patrol vehicle approaching in the distance. She crouched down in the brush and began to pray that she would not be seen, but would be able to return to her family. The vehicle passed closely by, slowing, but did not stop.
The room fell silent and the priest asked her how this experience tied into the reading. She replied: “the blind see, the lame walk, and the mojados cruzan.” A more expert or concise statement of Church teaching on migration you won’t find.
As you know, in the Catholic tradition, migrants occupy a position of almost unique reverence. They evoke our biblical heritage and have built our Church. They serve as the Church’s metaphor for itself and for the human condition; we’re a pilgrim people in a pilgrim church, passing through the world on a spiritual journey to our final home. They allow the Church to realize its mission on earth of gathering into one God’s scattered children. They provide the means for our conversion and a measure by which our lives will be judged. They are our “brothers and sisters” and, in them, we see our God: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”(Matthew 25:35).
Reverence. One wonders how the Church could reverence migrants more than it does. As Pope John-Paul II teaches and Bp. DiMarzio reminded us last night, we become fully human only in giving ourselves disinterestedly to God and to our neighbors. People do not usually migrate for selfish reasons, but to make better lives for their families or to flee inhuman conditions. Therefore, as the Pope teaches, migration allows them to become fully human.
In crafting Strangers No More: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. and Mexican bishops faced a potential dilemma. On the one hand, the Church does not favor open borders. It sees the need for immigration restrictions in furtherance of the common good. On the other, it recognizes the God-given rights that migrants (and all of us) possess, including the right to family reunification, to support a family, to flee persecution, and to belong fully to one’s adopted country.
In theory, the bishops might have seen a conflict between a state’s right to control its borders – which Fr. Hehir last night called a relative value – and the rights of migrants trying to enter. They did not. Instead, they concluded that the “common good” requires that people be able to migrate to realize their God-given rights. Of course, not everybody migrates to exercise a human right, but the vast majority of low-income persons served by your programs do. In Pacem in Terris and other core teaching documents, the Church has described these rights as “inviolable,” “absolute” and “inalienable.” In Strangers No More, the bishops said that the Church meant these words.
Of course, the familiar players immediately attacked the bishops’ statement for its supposed recklessness in the face of the terrorist threat. Better that the Church leave these complicated issues to the experts, the critics said, and stay within its own “religious” area of expertise. Let’s pause for a moment to recognize the stunning arrogance in telling an institution built over 2,000 years by migration that it lacks expertise on this issue and should sit out this debate.
And, in fact, we have been engaging counter-terror experts on the many new immigration restrictions since September 11, 2001. We know the problems that these measures have caused immigrants and their families. So, we’ve asked these experts a simple question: which of these changes have made us safer? They have told us that, yes, we’re in a war with opponents who would like to destroy our liberties and freedoms. And, yes, we cannot lose our focus on this grave threat. But the question is: how to engage this fight? Five points have emerged.
First, we need to be clear on what makes us safer. According to the experts, our nation’s most pressing counter-terror needs are to: improve overseas intelligence (penetrate terrorist groups abroad); befriend and partner with immigrant groups in the U.S. (groups into which terrorists might attempt to blend); and put the best intelligence in the hands of those who make admissions’ decisions. The sweeping law enforcement tactics after the terrorist attacks, they say, resulted from not having these tools in place. To the extent that terrorists have been caught, it has been because of good intelligence and law enforcement work. They have been caught in the ways you might expect that they would be.
Second, measures like massive arrests, detention, special registration, and ethnic profiling can be counter-productive. Even in the short-term, preventive arrests cause controversy. Intelligence experts prefer to “string along” suspects (to see where a conspiracy might lead), rather than “string up” suspects (which may not get to the heart of a plot). In long term, these tactics terrify, anger, and drive into hiding the very communities that are crucial to the anti-terror fight; that is, communities whose members might be able to provide early warning intelligence to prevent attacks. The experts ask rhetorically: if terrorists can be expected to try to hide within certain communities, does it make mores sense to befriend or alienate these groups?
Third, we need positive immigration reform. We need to get the best intelligence into the hands of officials making admissions’ decisions. We need to track certain non-immigrants. We need more thorough background checks, more cargo inspection, and other common-sense reforms. And, I might add, we need a broad legalization program, for the obvious humanitarian reasons, but also as a matter of national security. If we really want to know who is here and why, it makes far more sense to offer the undocumented – who live in the shadows of our communities – a chance to come forward to legalize their status, while going through the normal security checks.
Fourth, we need to recognize that enforcement actions that target the undocumented do not necessarily make us safer. Terrorists are not more likely to be undocumented. Al Qaeda does not recruit people with immigration problems, who meet U.S. profiles or who otherwise advertise themselves. The September 11th terrorists entered the United States legally. And 80 percent of the undocumented come from Mexico, Central America and South America, not exactly Al Qaeda strongholds.
Draconian enforcement efforts do more than undermine counter-terror efforts. As Vanna Slaughter recently wrote, they erode immigrants’ trust in the systems and institutions created for the common good. They make immigrants less likely to report crimes, cooperate with police, use domestic violence shelters, avail themselves of mental health clinics, go to hospitals, report abuses by notaries, put their money in banks, enroll their U.S. citizen children in health insurance programs or even walk them to school.
Fifth, some immigration measures have nothing to do with national security, despite the government’s claims to the contrary. Haitian boat people, for example, are not a national security risk. It does not further security to require people to submit change-of-address forms on an honor system (that terrorists won’t honor) and then not be able to process the resulting flood of notices anyway.
Of course, how we promote security goes to what kind of country we want the United States to be. Because we’re patriotic, we strongly support national security and counter-terror efforts, but we also want to live in a country that respects, defends and safeguards the God-given rights of all of its residents. A country in which our common humanity and values means more than the various stages in the immigration process in which we, as individuals, find ourselves. A country that honors its heritage as a nation of immigrants and sees in newcomers its past, present and future. A country that remembers Abraham Lincoln’s admonition: “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.” A country that understands, as our Founders did, that its security rests primarily in its allegiance to its core values. A country whose fight against terror is rooted in these values and that does not understand adherence to them as giving comfort to its enemies. A country whose war on terror compels it to embrace newcomers and to expand opportunities for victims of persecution to make their lives here.
As a Church, we recognize security as an important, but not as an absolute value. We remember, as Dorothy Day put it, that there’s another, deeper kind of security, the security we find in our faith and in our works of charity and justice.
Our vision extends well beyond security. Where there’s no vision, said Fr. Hehir, paraphrasing St. Paul, people perish. If people of faith and good will do not push their vision, the fear-mongers and dividers and haters will prevail.
What do we value? Beyond security, we want to integrate and empower the 32 million foreign-born persons in the United States, which would also further national security. We want to make sure that immigrant laborers don’t need to leave their countries to support their families, and that those forced to come need not risk their lives in desert crossings: an average of one migrant dies making this trip every day, a pure systemic evil. We want to make sure that those who survive the trip do not suffer abuse and exploitation in the workplace when they get here. We want expanded opportunities for family reunification. We want to keep state and local police from enforcing federal immigration laws so that the undocumented do not fear using emergency rooms, calling the police, walking their children to school, or even attending Church. We want more opportunities for those fleeing persecution to live in the United States. We want to make sure that refugees don’t languish for years in camps, that asylum-seekers don’t face criminal prosecution and detention, and that migrants aren’t intercepted before they can seek protection in the United States.
In short, we seek to foster and protect the God-given rights of migrants and other vulnerable people, and we insist that our government fulfill its very purpose by doing the same.
How do we get to where we need to go? For many of us, this is another way of asking what kind of people we want to be. Three points. First, primarily we’re called to serve. “Stake everything on charity,” said our brilliant speakers last night. As Mother Theresa said, “there are only small acts, done with great love.” Remember that and live it.
She also said that “we’re not supposed to be successful, but faithful.” The point is not that we expect to fail, but that if we’re faithful, we can be peaceful and confident about where it will all end. “We are sowing the seed of love, and we are not living in the harvest time so that we can expect a crop,” said Dorothy Day. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that you own your own “actions,” but not the “fruit of [your] actions,” so you should be peaceful about their effect.
Second, we need to be humble in our work, which should never be confused with subservience.
Humility allows us to see how we fit into the scheme of things, to understand our relation to God and to each other. Thomas Merton called humility “hard-headed spiritual realism” and viewed it as the pre-condition to compassion. Bishop Belo, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient from East Timor, reminds us that humility comes from the Latin “humus” which means “earth.” In other words, humility roots and grounds us. It also helps us to recognize and take comfort in the fact that our work will go on without us. As Charles DeGaulle said: “The graveyards of the world are filled with indispensable men.” A friend and human rights activist says that when he looks into the future of his work and cause, he doesn’t see himself at all. This should be the goal.
Finally, we must be hopeful. God doesn’t give us what we want, but what we hope for most deeply. “The heart’s earnest and pure desire is always fulfilled,” wrote Gandhi. Vaclav Havel has written: “Hope is not the expectation that things will turn out successfully, but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out.” In our hope, as in our service, lies our success.
For what are we hoping? I recently heard a Muslim Iman tell a story about a Jewish rabbi. As the head of a Catholic agency, in this great diverse country, I will tell it to you. The rabbi was speaking to a group of children. “How will you know the night has ended and the day has come?” he asked them. One child guessed: you’ll know it’s day when you can tell the apple from the peach tree. Another said that you’ll know when you can tell the donkey from the horse. The rabbi patiently acknowledged these and similar answers until a precocious child answered. “We’ll know it’s day,” she said, “when we’ll be able to recognize all people as our ‘brothers and sisters.’” Let us work for this day. Thank you.