Migration and why you need to respond

| Father Tony O'Neill | August 13, 2014 | 0 Comments

This summer, I had a profound experience that led me to reflect on the immigration issue, which is so much in the news right now.

I had just spent a week in Guatemala with a group of young people from our parish, and we were traveling back to Minnesota. When we arrived at the Houston airport, I went through the visitors line at immigration because I still have a British passport. What is normally a routine procedure turned into a two-hour saga. I was told to stand to one side and wait. The next thing I knew, I was being escorted to another room, and when the door opened, I saw about 60 people all waiting to have an issue resolved. It was like the United Nations with people from all over the world. It was deathly silent, and everyone looked tense and worried. I sat down and waited, still wondering why I was there.

Unfortunately, the immigration officer behind the desk was less than cordial and barked out orders at people to sit down. When an elderly Indian couple was escorted in wheelchairs, the immigration officer simply said “Those wheelchairs can’t stay there,” and told the couple to find a seat. They looked at her uncomprehendingly, and so she said in a louder voice “Take a seat.”

I was a little worried that the rest of our parish group would be waiting for me, but the room had signs everywhere saying “No cell phone use.” So I approached the desk and explained to another immigration officer that there was a group of people waiting for me, and asked for permission to text them to let them know where I was. He simply said, “No.” When I asked him how long he thought this would take, he said, “As long as it takes, but it could be hours.” With that, I sat down with a sigh and waited. As I looked around the room, I saw various expressions of concern, sadness, frustration and fear. No one was smiling. The room was hot and smelled. There was no restroom and no water fountain.

As I sat there, my mood was about the same as everyone else’s, but I prayed and asked God to let me be patient. The overriding feeling that I had and saw in those around me was one of helplessness. We were at the mercy of someone sitting behind a desk with a computer. And then, suddenly my name was called and I walked up to the desk where I was handed my passport with no explanation. When I asked what the problem was, they said. “It was a mistake.”

What the Church says about migration

No matter how complicated the immigration issue, we can never forget that we are dealing with human beings who deserve to have their dignity respected and protected. When we resort to yelling at a group of children on a bus who have left their families to try to find a better life, something is wrong. The Church, in her social teaching, has much to say on the issue that we would do well to review.

People migrate for a variety of reasons. For some, it is an attempt to escape a situation where they or their family are not safe, perhaps because of cultural or political upheaval. Some others are expelled from their countries and become refugees. Still others migrate because they seek a better life for themselves and their families. Migration is a permanent feature of social life.

The Church’s teaching on migration is rooted in Scripture, which speaks of how the alien is to be treated. Leviticus 19 says: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God.”

In the 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer,” U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops wrote that “The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories, but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” Likewise, the presence of immigrants within a country must not be used as an opportunity for exploitation.

The immigrant also has responsibilities in his new found home to contribute to the domestic common good of prosperity, freedom and peace.

Who should respond

The Church considers that the care of migrants is not just the responsibility of a few well intentioned individuals. Rather, it is the responsibility of all the faithful: “The challenge confronting us in today’s migrations is not an easy one because many different spheres are involved: economics, sociology, politics, health, culture and security. All Christians must respond to this challenge; it is not just a matter of goodwill or the personal charisma of a few” (The Love of Christ Towards Migrants, 3).

“Strangers No Longer” lays out five principles for nations to consider as they make immigration policies:

1. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland;

2. When opportunities are not available at home, persons have the right to migrate to find work to support themselves and their families;

3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their boundaries, but economically stronger nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows;

4. Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars and persecutions should be protected; and

5. The human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

As the immigration issue is hotly debated, may we have the mind of Christ and be led by the Holy Spirit, recognizing the dignity of every human being and keeping in mind that we are all pilgrims and our true home is in heaven.

Father O’Neill is pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Mound. He is a native of Glasgow, Scotland.

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