My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
For almost 20 years, the first week of January, which includes the Feast of the Epiphany, has been designated by the Bishops of the United States as National Migration Week. The Feast of the Epiphany reminds us of the visit of the Magi to the newborn child, Jesus. Almost immediately following, the flight into Egypt made the Holy Family the first Christian refugee family. Unfortunately, in the world today there are many more refugees than we have seen in many years.
The theme of this year’s Migration Week is “A Stranger, and You Welcomed Me.” These words of Jesus Himself come to us from the Gospel of Matthew reminding us that we will be judged on what we do for the least of our brethren. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees entitled “Migrants and Refugees Challenge Us. The Response of the Gospel of Mercy,” cites this very quotation when he says, “Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ Himself. Many institutions, associations, movements and groups, diocesan, national and international organizations are experiencing the wonder and joy of the feast of encounter, sharing and solidarity. They have heard the voice of Jesus Christ: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ (Rev 3:20). Yet there continue to be debates about the conditions and limits to be set for the reception of migrants, not only on the level of national policies, but also in some parish communities whose traditional tranquility seems to be threatened.”
Yes, strangers stand at the doors of our Nation and knock. In this Holy Year, we have opened the doors of mercy, perhaps reminding us that other doors, especially for refugees, need to be opened.
The current situation is comparable to our world after World War II when the world was overwhelmed by displaced persons and refugees. Today, we see in the Middle East over six million Syrians who have been displaced within their country, and over four million Syrians who have displaced to the neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and other surrounding areas, as well as others who have traveled over land through Turkey, Greece and Europe. These overwhelming numbers, which reflect more than half of the Syrian population in need of humanitarian assistance, gives us the graphic images of migrating herds of deer, except they are human beings who walk in rain and under terrible conditions hoping to reach a place of safe haven.
The situation from Africa has spawned a major meeting between the European and African nations. The issues of war and poverty have driven thousands of people through the continent of Africa, across the Mediterranean Sea in boats landing principally in Italy, again trying to find a safe haven. The Europeans and the Africans have an extensive program in which they hope to ameliorate the conditions of the war on poverty that are driving so many people toward a continent that seems unprepared, or unwilling, to receive them.
In our own hemisphere, the situation in Central America continues to drive unaccompanied minors and other people, especially from the Central American countries where there is violence and unrest, to seek a safe haven in our land. How difficult it is when we see families interred in prisons in our own nation as family units. Who would want to be a child in prison, not knowing why they were so treated? The situation cries for help. But who will help? Who will open the doors to these strangers? How can we be sure that these strangers in our country are not terrorists or enemies?
This discussion is a complex one. Clearly, those entering our country without inspection can present a danger to our security. No wall, however long or high, will keep people who are desperate from entering. There is a risk that in the crowd of genuine asylum seekers and economic refugees that we find terrorists. That is one of the reasons why the situation of the undocumented who in our country needs to be regularized, so that we can begin to sort out who is here and who they are. It is most important that we secure the work place, because it is the work place that draws people to our country. Some type of secure work place system, with all of the cautions involved, needs to be implemented rather than the building of a wall.
As we look to solutions, we recognize that the screening process must be more rigorous than ever. It is not impossible, however, with the refugees with whom we are dealing from the Middle East at this point. The backgrounds of these people can be known and checked from place of origin. When clear documents are not available, however, we should certainly process those people who have relatives in the U.S., those who work for the U.S. government, such as in Iraq and other areas, those who can be trusted, so that we can begin to alleviate the crisis that exists in these places of first asylum.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his message for World Day of Refugees and Migrants states, “The Church stands at the side of all who work to defend each person’s right to live with dignity, first and foremost by exercising the right not to emigrate and to contribute to the development of one’s country of origin. This process should include, from the outset, the need to assist the countries which migrants and refugees leave. This will demonstrate that solidarity, cooperation, international interdependence and the equitable distribution of the earth’s goods are essential for more decisive efforts, especially in the areas where migration movements begin, to eliminate those imbalances which lead people, individually or collectively, to abandon their own natural and cultural environment. In any case, it is necessary to avert, if possible at the earliest stages, the flight of refugees and departures as a result of poverty, violence and persecution.”
In this one paragraph, Pope Francis has clearly stated the policy of the Church regarding migrants. Let people remain in their home, make the conditions of their lives tolerable, assist in the development in underdeveloped nations, and show solidarity so that we can avert situations that cause refugees and result in poverty, violence and persecution.
Our Holy Father has put out into the deep area of migration policy in this concise statement. We are all asked to consider his teaching carefully, so that we can change our minds and hearts and become a safe haven that our United States of America has always been to those who come to our shores.