Catholic approach to migration seen as a chance to be ‘prophetic’

By Marietha Góngora V., Maria-Pia Negro Chin, and Andrea Acosta

WASHINGTON (OSV News) – Continuing to minister to migrants at the border and beyond while advocating for policies that uphold people’s dignity is a way the U.S. Catholic Church follows God’s call, said experts during an April 11 migration conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Hosted by CUA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the conference’s theme was “Responding to Changing Realities at the U.S. Border and Beyond.” It included panels with academics and experts with hands-on experience ministering to migrants.

Attendees listen to speakers during an immigration conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington April 11, 2024. The conference was hosted by the university and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (OSV News photo/Patrick Ryan, Catholic University of America)

After his opening prayer, Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjívar of Washington referenced the recently released Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration “Dignitas Infinita,” saying that migrants have their “dignity denied in their home countries but also their lives are put at risk” because they often engage in a dangerous journey for the sake of their families.

But, said William Canny, executive director of the department of Migration and Refugee Services at USCCB, the human dignity of all migrants should not be denied or forgotten.

Drawing from “Strangers No Longer: Together in a Journey of Hope,” the 2003 joint document by the bishops of the U.S. and Mexico, which addressed the need to manage migration more humanely and emphasized pastoral care to newcomers, he said: “We are guided by these principles: People have a right to stay and find opportunities in their own country. They have the right to migrate and support themselves and their families when they cannot stay. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders, we would say humanely. Refugees and asylum-seekers should be given protection, wealthy countries perhaps have a greater responsibility to do that. Human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should always be respected.”

The first panel at CUA’s migration conference delved into migrants’ experiences at the border and beyond, including the root causes of migration, what migrant families face, and how the church responds during their journey and once they arrive in the U.S.

Sister Tracey Horan, a Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, who is associate director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative, a binational Catholic organization located in Nogales, talked about migration to the border of the U.S. as an act of desperation. She said that while in 2017, their migrant center would see men migrating for economic reasons, they are increasingly seeing more families — with 83% of people reporting violence and persecution as their primary reason to migrate in 2023.

Those arriving at the southern border come from countries like Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, as well as China, and Russia.

Because migrants seeking protection from violence can’t just walk up to the port of entry, people can wait in Mexico for months, Sister Tracey told OSV News. “We’re trying to accompany people as they’re facing these really tough choices about how to sustain their families as they’re stuck in limbo and how to access an orderly pathway to getting protection in the U.S.”

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, speaks as Peter Kilpatrick, president of The Catholic University of America, looks on during an immigration conference at university in Washington April 11, 2024. The conference was hosted by the university and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (OSV News photo/Patrick Ryan, Catholic University of America)

Holy Cross Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, director of the Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, described the situation migrants face once they enter the U.S. and said that many community-based organizations are overwhelmed. For example, she said that her agency in Washington has 35 professionals in the legal department and can’t keep up with the demand.

This was later echoed by Michelle Sardone, deputy director of programs at Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. She warned that despite organizations’ efforts to provide immigration legal services, many migrants face the immigration system without legal representation. “At the end of last year, the backlog of cases in immigration court was 3.2 million, and of those cases, only 30% have representation,” she said.

But accompanying new migrants also is an opportunity to follow Jesus’ teachings and be prophetic, said Sister Sharlet Ann, even when current rhetoric demonizes migrants or treats them as a political tool. “It is a privilege to walk with them,” she said of the migrants they serve.

Moreover, she added, the United States needs workers who contribute to local economies, stressing that they are ready and willing to work. She added that although local governments face the unexpected need to respond to an increase in population, responding to migrants is an investment.

Citing Congressional Budget Office projections, she said the labor force will increase by 5.2 million workers by 2033. Because of immigrants entering the workforce, she said, CBO estimates that gross domestic product will increase by about $7 trillion and revenues will grow by $1 trillion between 2023 and 2034.

The panel also addressed misinformation — primarily spread through social media — which creates confusion for migrants but amplifies anti-immigrant rhetoric. Misleading information and increased politicization of the issue have made discussing the Catholic response to migration controversial.

Oblate Father Leo Perez, USCCB’s director for National Collections for Church in Latin America, said that the times he preaches about what the Gospel says about migrants, he knows he has “to be ready to be attacked right outside the church by people who think you’re politicizing the Eucharist.” But, having met migrants on the move while visiting Latin America and seen what they go through, the priest said he stores up energy to face this.

When talking about migration, sharing the testimonies of people is crucial because “it helps us see the human side, the people and not numbers,” said Sister Tracey, echoing a widespread sentiment of panelists and attendees.

CUA’s president, Peter K. Kilpatrick, told OSV News, “it’s critically important to discuss immigration, really at all times, but especially in this year of our national election for our next president.”

“This conversation, I hope, will sensitize our hearts, too, and help us discern better where we invest all of our time and energy to be of service to our neighbor,” he said of the conference.

During her presentation for the panel, “Why do Catholics respond to the call to stand with immigrants?,” CUA professor Julia Young quickly summarized the century-long history of Catholic migration advocacy at the U.S.-Mexico border. She focused on five moments of Latin American migration since 1910 — the Mexican revolution and later the Cristero War, the Bracero program for Mexican workers, Cuban migration to Miami and Puerto Ricans moving to New York and New Jersey — pointing out the ways Catholic leaders helped reunite families, offered legal services, assisted unaccompanied minors, face racism and nativism, and advocated for those who came.

The church was doing “what so many people in this room are doing now,” she said.

Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, a research professor at Georgetown University, talked about the biblical basis for caring for migrants. In the Old Testament, the call to love the stranger is listed 36 times, he said, and this call is echoed in the Gospel of Matthew.

Meanwhile, Todd Scribner, Migration and Refugee Services’ director of education, talked about the church responding to the needs of Catholic migrants at the beginning of the 20th century — and how mid-century shifts, including the number of people migrating to flee communism — affected the way it cared about migrants as a person, regardless of their faith.

Panelists also stressed that many of the Catholic schools and hospitals that are now part of American life were initially founded to serve Catholic immigrants, often amid anti-migrant and anti-Catholic sentiment before they integrated into U.S. society.

“In the past, there was a lot of nativism,” Young told OSV News. Narratives first described migrants from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe as different and dangerous people who “can never be assimilated,” she said, likening it to some charged rhetoric portraying newcomers as “a crisis.”

“The history of our migration shows us that migrants can and do become American and also enrich the culture in the United States,” she said.

During a keynote address, Kilpatrick interviewed Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas. The bishop talked about the enduring solidarity of the community of El Paso amid restrictive policies in the state, migrants’ contributions to society, the response of cities receiving busloads of migrants “being sent there in a way intended to overwhelm resources,” the need for an all-hands-on-deck approach amid a surge in migration and the call for a consistent ethic of life.

He also said the virtue of hospitality “sums up fundamental aspects of being a Christian” because “our whole salvation is based on a hospitable God who is willing to reach out to us.”

From a practical standpoint, he continued, responding to the needs of migrants “who are forced to the sidelines because of our unwillingness to welcome them and integrate them as our Holy Father calls us to” is “fundamental for a healthy nation.”

“This is a key moment, and we will either thrive or not thrive as a nation in the future, as a place of peace, justice, and harmony. … Unless we respond to this challenge,” he said.

During an afternoon panel, experts then discussed Catholic institutions’ role in shaping immigration policy.

Christy Williams, director of social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA, explained that its centers around the country help combat food insecurity, housing and shelter, and disaster relief. Thus, they engage with Congress “to advocate for policies and legislation that prioritize the needs of the poor, ensure that those legislation policies are humane, honor the dignity of people, and ensure that their rights are respected.”

This includes advocating for expanded legal pathways to enter the U.S. because restrictive policies “have really negatively impacted migrants and cut them off from access to vital protections at the border,” Williams said.

That is why it’s important that “federal agencies that administer immigration in this country have the resources they need,” which will, in turn, mean that “people are not waiting two or three years for a work permit or wait 10 years before they can have their case heard before the immigration judge.”

Celina Marquez, a USCCB policy adviser, said that in addition to working with government agencies to welcome and provide services to refugees, asylum-seekers, and unaccompanied children, MRS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement assists “with various forms of advocacy” on a federal level while keeping a finger on the pulse of state legislatures that can affect vulnerable migrant populations. These include work authorizations for asylum-seekers, more safety measures for migrant children and promoting family unity, as well as addressing root causes of migration.

“We are always focused on advocating for comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform so that the migrant population that is currently in the country, whether they are undocumented or here under a temporary form of status like TPS, have a pathway to status and also for those who are outside the country and hoping to come in” so they have a safer way to migrate, she said.

Meanwhile, Giulia McPherson, vice president of advocacy and operations for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA,explained that JRS, which works in more than 55 countries, receives State Department funds for about 14 countries. Those funds help displaced people with access to education, livelihood and mental health support. “We are focusing a lot of our advocacy to make sure that the U.S. government continues to support those overseas refugee assistance programs,” she said.

David Cronin, senior policy and legislative specialist for Catholic Relief Services, said CRS’s advocacy efforts ensure that “taxpayer dollars are allocated to support humanitarian aid and address the root causes of migration.” This allows organizations like CRS to accompany people in vulnerable situations and give them tools and resources so they can thrive where they live and are not forced to leave their homes.

“I just hope that during this conversation, you keep in mind the people that are impacted by the policies,” he said. “They desperately need hope, resources and support.”

Before the final prayer, six experts shared different recommendations for people to engage in action, which included stressing the importance of Catholic education for migrants to be integrated into mainstream society and highlighted the resources their organizations provide.

Cheryl Aguilar, founding director of Hope Center for Wellness, which works with parents of migrant children who have been separated from their families, echoed their call to encourage others to create support groups, be good neighbors, understand the causes of migration and volunteer.

“Whether we are legal service providers, legal professionals, students or whoever we are in this room, there is always something we can do,” she said.

(Marietha Góngora V. writes for OSV News from Washington. Maria-Pia Negro Chin is Spanish editor for OSV News. Andrea Acosta is a reporter for El Pregonero, the Spanish language newspaper and website for Archdiocese of Washington.)