Separating Families on the Border and the Catholic Teaching on Immigration

by Ed Harpring

July calls to mind the celebration of Independence Day, ice cream, cookouts, pools, beaches, or anywhere just to cool off. Almost these activities are associated with familes and family fun in the sun.  This summer, however, the news spotlight has been focused on families who are in turmoil – suffering migrant families on the US – Mexican border.  Many of these families have been split apart at the border with children in one area and parents in another area. The pictures and stories are heartbreaking, and the public outcry has fanned the political flames on both sides of the aisle.

So how should Catholics respond to this “Life” issue? What does our Catholic faith teach us about our responsibilities to “welcome the strangers among us.”

Everyone agrees that that “something” must be done about immigration in the United States but that “something” is a hotly debated national issue. And despite the enormous challenges, complexities, that sometimes seems to pit national security vs. human rights, the Catholic Church has the essential elements rooted in Sacred Scripture, the Catechism, and our Catholic Bishops statements to provide the framework of policies that can lead to a comprehensive solution . . .

But let’s not leave out our lived experience, through our ancestors who mostly arrived in the early 1800’s. At this time of massive immigration, in Thomas Paine’s words, “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”

The immigration issue is certainly not a new debate. In fact, the story of Catholicism in the United Sates IS the story of immigration. In the middle half of the nineteenth century, more than one-half of the population of Ireland migrated to the United States as well as an equal number of Germans. Most of them came because of civil unrest, crop failure (potato famine) severe unemployment political unrest. Sound familiar?

This wave of immigration affected almost every city and almost every person in America. From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the United States — more than the entire population of the country in 1810. Nearly all of them came from northern and western Europe — about a third from Ireland and almost a third from Germany. Unlike our current immigration laws, there were virtually no laws restricting the massive flow of our most of our ancestors.

Our ancestors were not met with open arms by any means. Ethnic and anti-Catholic rioting occurred in many cities, including Louisville. Bloody Monday was August 6, 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky, an election day, when Protestant mobs attacked German and Irish Catholic neighborhoods. These riots grew out of the bitter rivalry between the Democrats and the Nativist Know-Nothing Party. Multiple street fights raged, leaving twenty-two people dead, scores injured, and much property destroyed by fire.

As Catholics, we literally have our DNA wrapped around the immigration issue. Our ancestors, just like today’s immigrants, were facing political unrest, economic hardships, crop failures and racists/religious prejudices.

Our shared ancestral immigration heritage and history should enable us to see more clearly why the Church puts so much importance on protecting and assisting immigrant and refugees. Welcoming the Stranger Among Us is a comprehensive document by our Catholic Bishops which was inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II as he stood beneath the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on January 22, 1999, and announced the summary of Ecclesia in America: namely, the call to conversion, communion, and solidarity with the many peoples of different nationalities in America.

With so much heated discussion over the past decades about immigration strategies, it seems there is much confusion about the US Bishops recommendations for Immigration. The best description might be the common Catholic expression “both and.”  USCCB is both for recognizing and advocating for the plight of immigrants and refugees and accepting the “legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States.” A summary of the Bishops position on Immigration policy can be found here.

We can narrow the focus even more through the Catechism and its teaching on immigration.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2241: 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. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

In essence, the US Catholic Bishops and the Catechism both confirm that people who suffer the effect of abject poverty, terrorism, persecution, hunger, crime and governmental instability like the countries in Central America are experiencing right now—do have a right to migrate. And that those countries like ours that are blessed with many resources, have an obligation to welcome them as best we can in a merciful and humane manner.

Sacred Scripture

Both the Old and New Testaments tell compelling stories of refugees forced to flee because of oppression. Exodus tells the story of the Chosen People, Israel, who were victims of bitter slavery in Egypt. The New Testament begins with Matthew’s story of Joseph and Mary’s escape to Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus.

Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command to love and care for the stranger, a criterion by which we shall be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). More examples can be found here.

The Catholic Church advocates immigration policies based on Christian teaching rooted in human rights and the dignity of every human being. As Catholics, we are called to welcome the stranger, but also to respect the law. We are morally bound to respect the dignity of every human person, but this cannot create civil disorder. As faithful citizens, we have the responsibility to promote Church teachings and to advocate for immigration reform that promotes the common good.

Immigration, because of its many complexities is a social issue that many well-informed Catholics may still disagree upon.

In a recent article, Archbishop Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles succinctly stated, “That is what’s at stake in our immigration debate — the future of this beautiful American story. Our national debate is really a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul. How we respond will measure our national character and conscience in this generation.”


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