Put Out into the Deep

We Must Never Forget the Poor and Migrant People of the World

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Each year for the last 50 years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has maintained the custom of aligning National Migration Week with the theme of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The Bishops recently decided to move National Migration Week, normally celebrated in January, to September to coincide with the Holy Father’s annual message on migration.

In solidarity with the Vatican, National Migration will use the same theme as the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, “Towards an ever wider we;” however, it will emphasize the particular ways in which this theme and its application to the migration question is experienced here in the United States.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been a constant advocate for migrants and refugees. In his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, he expressed a concern and hope that remains utmost in his thoughts: “Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those,’ but only ‘us.’ ”

Our Holy Father truly has put his finger on the problem in the world today. The concern for self at times blurs the concern for our neighbor, and our migrant neighbors seem to be so far away from us that they are not part of our concern. As a universal Church, the Catholic Church must remember all of its members and all of the poor and migrants of the world, even though it is much easier to forget them.

As we can see, World Migration Day has a long history, 108 years to be exact. This truly shows that the Church did not come to this advocacy position just recently, but has maintained it for over a century, recognizing that the vast amount of migration of the world is seen in modern times as having occurred in the last century and this one.

Recently, the news was brought to us of the crisis refugee airlifts from Afghanistan after the departure of the United States military from that country after a 20-year war. I, myself, became intimately involved in migration due to a similar situation nearly 45 years ago when the Vietnam War ended abruptly. In 1975, we saw the evacuation of many refugees who had worked with the United States waging that war.

Our country truly was most generous with the Vietnamese people. Over one million refugees were resettled in one year, mostly through the voluntary sector, the work of the Church, and secular agencies. I began my work in assisting with the resettling of these people while I was ministering in the Archdiocese of Newark, as I already had been involved with helping Spanish and Italian-speaking immigrants.

After taking some initial immigration law courses, I opened a center to assist these people in being resettled. The Archbishop at that time, Archbishop Peter Gerety, asked me to come to the archdiocese and establish a migration office at Catholic Charites under the direction of Monsignor Francis LoBianco, my trusted friend and mentor for over 50 years now. We began the work of resettlement; however, the Vietnamese people were not the last group to demand our attention as later came the Haitian boat people and the Cuban Marielitos, in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift.

It seems that the United States presents a beacon of hope for the world. Its doors are never shut to those in extreme circumstances. Refugee crises are unique. People flee for their lives, and not for economic benefit, but for life itself.

During these recent days, we have seen an accumulation of the thousands of immigrants under a bridge trying to enter the United States, many of whom are Haitian immigrants who once had settled in Latin America and now came directly to the United States because of the recent earthquake, and the political instability in Haiti.

Migrants are people who are desperate. At the same time, however, they have not lost their humanity. In my experience, migrants are the most respectful human beings one could ever meet. They are driven by instinct and make calculated decisions, deciding to risk all not only to save their lives, but also the lives of their children.

I have often asked refugees and immigrants, “Why have you made this difficult choice to leave your home country?” Nine times out of ten, the answer was always, “It was not for me, but for my children.” Truly, these people know that the survival of their family sometimes depends on migrating to better conditions, sometimes life-saving conditions.

Our Holy Father reminds us that it is not ‘them’ and ‘those,’ but only ‘us.’ It is only ‘we’ who are privileged to be Catholics in a wonderful country we call the United States of America, built by immigrants, even though there has been reaction against immigrants during our long history.

Recently, I read a survey of immigration policy over the past 100 years. It has been an up and down situation, sometimes welcoming, but mostly impeding anyone coming here.

Sometimes it is fear, sometimes it is a false understanding of who migrants are, and sometimes it is just plain prejudice. We cannot allow ourselves to be taken in by the misunderstandings of our society regarding the migration situation; however, we need to be better educated about the reality of who these migrants are. In my doctoral dissertation, I was driven to answer the question about the undocumented and undertook a study, unique at that time in the early 1980s, to survey the characteristics of the population of the New York Metropolitan Area.

During this time, I was in New Jersey in the Archdiocese of Newark, but I came to the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn to gather the data that was available to the migration programs that were being run by these dioceses.

I can say that what I learned then is still valid today, that the majority of migrants come and are immediately integrated into our society. The first sign of integration is that people are working. Sometimes they are working in the most difficult jobs, but they work. It is the first contribution that the migrant does to a society, they contribute their work for the betterment of the society. They do not come to take benefits they never earned. They do not resist learning English or participating in our civil society. Clearly, what I learned in those days is still valid today.

As we approach this annual day of prayer and reflection on the place of immigrants in our society, we should heed our Holy Father’s plea as he says, “I also make this appeal to journey together towards an ever wider ‘we’ to all men and women, for the sake of renewing the human family, building together a future of justice and peace, and ensuring that no one is left behind.” “We” are the people of God in this blessed country.

We all put out into the deep of the migration phenomenon, misunderstood as it is, yet vital to the lives of so many millions.

Hopefully, we can move our attitudes to become more understanding and accepting of those most in need on the peripheries of the societies of our world.