By Tom Tracy
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) – Pope Francis will arrive in the U.S. in September at the close of what could be called the “summer of immigration.”
Asylum-seekers landed on Greek beaches and traversed the France-to-England Channel Tunnel, while Berlin announced a plan for moving refugees into container-based housing.
In the U.S., with the 2016 presidential campaign debates underway, domestic immigration controversies pop up with regularity, including renewed calls for a security wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, and fingers pointed at some incidents of violent crime attributed to immigrants.
It’s widely expected that at some point during his first papal U.S. visit, Pope Francis will address the issues of human migration.
He has spoken out against the “globalization of indifference” about the plight of migrants. During his Latin America trip in July, migration was in a long list of problems he said must be addressed jointly by governments and the wider society.
“Through his vision, Pope Francis will show our Congress that the whole world is watching what our leaders here are doing and that their lack of action on immigration reform will not go unnoticed,” said Maria Sotomayor.
Pope Francis is to address a joint meeting of Congress Sept. 24 during his stop in the nation’s capital. After Washington he goes to New York, then Philadelphia.
Sotomayor, an Ecuador native, is a 2013 graduate of Neumann University in Pennsylvania, which two years ago was one of more than 100 Catholic institutions of higher education that signed a joint letter urging U.S. lawmakers to enact immigration reform with a path toward citizenship.
Sotomayor, who now works as an outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and who herself was raised in the U.S. in a family of undocumented immigrants, told Catholic News Service (CNS) she hopes someone like her – who benefited from the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, initiated by President Barack Obama – could be among those who are to meet with Pope Francis.
On Sept. 26, the pope is to meet with immigrants at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A day earlier he is to meet with immigrants and others helped by a New York Catholic Charities program.
“If I would share my story with him I would ask Pope Francis to bring to light our current immigration system and how it is hurting our families; our leaders need to change the system and remember families with greater dignity and respect,” Sotomayor said.
She added that she has advocated for women and children held at the Berks County Residential Center for undocumented families near Philadelphia. Many of those housed at Berks were originally arrested at the southern border and shipped to Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I hope Pope Francis will call on Congress to respect the dignity of people here and to stop violations of human rights that we see at the family detention centers housing children and parents while they wait for an immigration judge to decide on their case,” she said. “They are actually a jail for families.”
Both the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis – himself the product of cross-continental migration story – have already had much to say about the need for a more expansive view on immigration and Christian charity toward “the stranger among us.”
Writing on the matter in 2013, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput noted that the U.S. bishops, along with millions of fellow American Catholics, “seek reasonable legislation that will offer undocumented persons a path to citizenship and promote family unity.”
The U.S. bishops, Archbishop Chaput said, have called for several key elements toward immigration reform:
• A path to citizenship for workers in the country illegally that’s fair, accessible and achievable in a reasonable timeframe.
• Reform of the family-based immigration system to reunite husbands, wives and children more quickly.
• A program that would allow low-skilled migrant workers to enter the U.S. legally as needed labor.
• Due process protections for immigrants and policies that address the root causes of migration, including economic inequities and persecution.
Enrique Pumar, a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, told CNS he doesn’t expect Pope Francis to delve into the particulars of U.S. immigration reform.
He does expect the pope will call for a greater degree of humanity that seems lacking in the popular conversation.
“Because of the authority, charisma and popularity of Pope Francis, he has the ability to sell his agenda and make right some issues, and I think immigration will be one of them,” said Pumar, adding that the head of the Catholic Church naturally has a pastoral stake in global migration matters.
A Cuban-American, Pumar has been working with the Smithsonian Institution’s Latino Center to document Hispanic migration to the Washington metropolitan region.
“There are some moral convictions that are part of Catholic doctrine that the pope will interject into the debate. For Catholics, we believe every human has a right to search for a better life and for his family, and that every nation state has a right to regulate its borders with some measure of compassion, some measure of ethics and reflection,” Pumar said, noting the top area of public contention remains what to do with the estimated 11.2 million undocumented persons now in the U.S.
“That is a political question that I don’t think the pope will get into,” Pumar said. “The debate is either deportation or amnesty, but the options are actually wide open. The pope will force us to reflect on the many options that we have and that will enrich the debate.”
Pumar said U.S. lawmakers, to help reduce the undocumented population, could consider a combination of guest worker/temporary work permit programs, a graduated residency and citizenship program for others, and deportation measures as needed for those with criminal records.
Such reforms and normalization also might ultimately encourage some immigrants to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, he added.
Julia Young, a Catholic University of America assistant professor of history with a focus on the historic Mexican immigration to the U.S., hopes Pope Francis’ visit will be an occasion to celebrate immigrants and the hard work of church agencies and staff who provide migrants with legal, material and pastoral care.
“Historically, this is what the Catholic Church is good at: meeting the needs of people, especially mothers and children fleeing violence,” said Young, who in 2013 wrote a number of articles offering context to the election of the church’s first Latin American-born pontiff.
“It will be interesting to see who attends the Washington events, and I think we will know a lot more when we see who is sitting there and who is included in the crowd and the overall message of the visit,” Young told CNS.
She said she would love to see inclusion of those who would benefit from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, known as the DREAM Act, a long-stymied immigration reform bill. They call themselves DREAMers; under Obama’s DACA program, they are offered some relief that bill would provide.
“I would love to see the DREAMers there, because I think youth have been so energized by this pope and we saw that in his trip to Rio,” Young said.
“That would reinforce the pope’s own message of showing mercy and treating immigrants not as criminals but as people who need ministry and compassion.”