My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
At the end of September of this year, the Vatican offices, the Dicasteries of the Holy See, sponsored a conference entitled, Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration. This issue certainly affects us here in the United States. Perhaps the best term to explain this is the issue of “Populist Nationalism.” The conference defined this as such; “Populist Nationalism is a political strategy that seeks to rely on and promote the fears of individuals and groups in order to assert the need for an authoritarian political power to protect the interests of the dominant social or ethnic group established on a particular territory. It is in the name of this ‘protection’ that populist leaders justify the refusal to offer refuge, to receive and to integrate individuals or groups from other countries or different cultural or religious contexts.”
We are witnesses to this recurrence of exclusionism as a policy of our country. In the last six weeks, we have seen this situation come to a head. First, the issue of the so-called “caravans” coming from Central America to the United States which have been dubbed “the invasion.” The fact of the matter is that they are multi-faceted groups of people coming for various reasons. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, Congress ensured that federal immigration statutes of the United States conformed to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was adopted when the U.S. signed the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. The United States is bound by both federal and international law not to expel or return a refugee whose life or freedom would be threatened on account of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Unfortunately, the somewhat organized movement of people does not reflect well on their countries of origin, or even on the countries through which they pass to reach the United States. Asylum, by international law, must first be granted in the first country outside of which the person moves. Mexico has been willing to process some asylum claims; however, most of these people still wish to come to the United States.
In the past, the United States has been a beacon of freedom and hope for many generations of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. If we lose this understanding of our great nation, we will become a very different country. We will become a fortress into which we will admit no one in need of help, under any circumstances. Already, we have seen the diminution of the refugee resettlement program where in the last several years we were admitting 100,000 people. This number had been reduced to a recommended 30,000, and perhaps that number of people will not even be reached during this fiscal year. It is important that we realize that those who are granted refugee status have been interviewed by multiple federal agencies, and have had a background check. This is a process that takes an enormous amount of time to ensure that the person actually is eligible for refugee status under U.S. and international law.
The acceptance of refugees by the United States has been a barometer for the rest of the civilized world in receiving refugees from different countries where “life and limb” are at stake. When we shut our doors, other countries follow suit. Again, this is one of the issues we are dealing with in today’s world.
At the Vatican conference mentioned above, the issue of “Xenophobia,” or the fear of strangers, was discussed, as well as “Racism” which is a manifestation of xenophobia. It makes the situation very difficult when we mix all of these issues together and do not look to the “Golden Rule” which reminds us that we must do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Fundamental human rights cannot be overturned because of a perceived gaming of our immigration system.
A simple solution to “caravans” would be “in country” processing where people in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala could go to the American Embassy and present their case and have a determination made there, without these people having to risk their lives in traveling to the United States or give a false signal that they are invading our country. Our generosity as a country has been greatly diminished. Individuals who truly deserve asylum should not be lumped together with those who seem to come to the United States for less serious reasons.
Another issue that is at the forefront of our news today is the issue of “birthright citizenship.” Again, this is an issue that has great Constitutional implications. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. An Executive Order soon to be released by our President may limit those who are citizens of the United States by birth. Certainly, if this is the case, the Executive Order would need to be reviewed in the courts.
Although to some it would seem at face value to be a reasonable approach to deny citizenship to the children of those who come to the United States only to give birth. We know that in our own diocese several weeks ago in Flushing we saw the unfortunate attack on several Chinese babies whose mothers came to have their children born in the United States in so called “birthing houses.”
Certainly, this is something that needs to be dealt with, however, perhaps not in this radical way. Because once we deny birthright citizenship, the fact is that anyone, even those children of legal immigrants, might be denied citizenship once we whittle away at that Amendment to our Constitution.
Another anti-immigrant move we see from our Administration is the proposed rule on public charge. The term “public charge” first appears in the Immigration Act of 1882, referring specifically to any “person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Unfortunately, this new interpretation of the “public charge” determination goes well beyond its original intent because now any legal immigrant in the United States who accesses public cash assistance, or is institutionalized at the expense of the government, will be excluded from citizenship. This also holds true for the children of those here in the United States legally.
It seems that Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), voucher programs for Section 8 Housing, and non-emergency Medicaid, as well as project based rental assistance all will be grounds for denying eventual citizenship to permanent residents. Also, there is a question of adding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) into the mix. It is critical to remember that in the welfare reform of 1996, Congress specifically delineated which categories of immigrants were eligible for which federally funded benefits.
I will not opine on the motivation for this rulemaking. Clearly, we must understand that immigrant families do come to our country to work, not to collect social benefits. Some, unfortunately, have to access these benefits in times of need as do our citizens. As workers, especially documented workers, they should receive the same benefits from the safety net provided for low-income workers.
Right now, it is almost impossible for undocumented people themselves to receive any of these benefits. Unfortunately, we are going a little too far in trying to exclude from citizenship those who are contributing to the welfare of our country by their work.
The nature of our society in the United States is one that is multi-ethnic and multi-racial. This cannot be changed by reinventing the immigration system. It would seem that this motivation is part and parcel on the newly launched attack on immigration to this country, as well as the rescue programs of asylum and refugee resettlement.
As Christians and Catholics, we must support fundamental human rights, and we must reject populist initiatives that are incomparable with Gospel values. This should inspire our participation in political life and political discourse. We need to understand our fundamental choices when it comes to choosing our elected officials who need to defend life at all stages of existence from conception to natural death. We cannot pick and choose which life issues we will support. All are important, but obviously, the right to life itself is fundamental and most important. We cannot bargain one for another.
As we have put out into the deep in this new election cycle, we must take into consideration our responsibilities as Catholic Christians. We must understand better the issues and not be dragged into populist nationalism. On face value, it seems to protect the citizens of our Nation, but in effect, it isolates us from one another and the world.