As Bishop Emeritus of Brooklyn, I, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, have a long history of service to immigrants beginning with my first priestly days. I am happy to be able to continue to serve the cause of migrants in my retirement.
So, I begin this series of articles entitled “Walking with Migrants” that will appear in hopefully many diocesan newspapers, informing our Catholics about the facts of migration and how church teaching affects the work and the policy positions taken by the Catholic Church. My hope is that more Catholics will come to embrace the Church’s teachings on migration — a topic rarely preached upon, often misunderstood, and even opposed by many Catholics.
Recently, the border situation in Texas has prompted a number of lawsuits against the Diocese of Brownsville and its Catholic Charities. It is truly unfortunate that an organization called CatholicVote worked in tandem with Judicial Watch to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to probe the relationship between the Diocese, Catholic Charities, and the federal government, and then to sue the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over this information. CatholicVote claims that somehow, the government and the church are in collusion with one another, trying to bring more migrants across the border. Yet, the work of Catholic Charities is totally humanitarian.
Many people crossing the border today are asylees, who under international law have a right to a hearing on the merits of their claim. Many are apprehended, and later DHS turns some over to Catholic Charities for basic humanitarian services such as lodging and food. Some eventually are provided with assistance (bus fare) to travel to their relatives where they will await their asylum hearings, while in removal proceedings. CatholicVote’s claim is that somehow this kind of assistance is a form of human trafficking. Of course, it is not, which it could easily have found out by asking the Diocese of Brownsville.
It is important to understand Catholic teaching on this very human issue. When I was Chairman of the United States Conference Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB’s) Committee on Migration, the U.S. bishops worked together with the Mexican bishops to develop five basic principles, which guide the work of the church in this area. First, sovereign nations have the authority and responsibility to administer their borders, but at the same time (this is the fifth principle) the human dignity and human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented persons must be respected.
As Sister Norma Pimentel, Director of Catholic Charities in the Brownsville Diocese said recently, “I can assure you [migrants] are not uprooting themselves to come to our Respite Center so they can take a bath and have a meal or sleep on a mat. They are leaving dire circumstances back in their home countries, risking everything to come here with the hope they can find a safe place to raise their families.” The root causes of migration go much deeper than the supposed pull factor of some humanitarian aid available at the border.
The push and pull theory of migration has long been disproven as simplistic. The root causes of migration demand much study. Most of the migrants coming today, from Central American countries, are fleeing situations of violence and persecution. It can, however, be difficult for many migrants to meet the strict standard and provide the level of proof demanded of them by the courts to be granted asylum. Creating new and strengthening existing legal immigration pathways based on family ties, humanitarian needs, and school and work opportunities could serve to reduce the number of people taking dangerous journeys to the border.
The governor of Texas, Gregory Abbott, issued an executive order, GA-37, prohibiting the transport of migrants by anyone other than government agents. This order — like the CatholicVote lawsuit ؘ— was aimed at Catholic Charities, which legally assists migrants, after release, to go to bus stations or airports for travel to their destinations. Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas is one of several organizations challenging the governor’s executive order. A federal court has blocked this order. However, other federal efforts to prevent migration remain in effect and expose people fleeing danger and precarious social conditions to additional risks.
The border situation is truly lamentable. Migrants can be turned back under Title 42 of the U.S. Code on the pretense that doing so is “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.” This decades-old public health order was implemented by the prior administration in March 2020 and remains in effect. Many organizations — including 164 Catholic organizations — are lobbying the Federal Government to vacate that rule, since testing is not done, but this measure is just used as a general excuse to rapidly expel asylum seekers.
There are many solutions to the present-day migration situation. One of which would be better communication between the United States, Mexico, and especially the Central American countries. The universal nature of the Catholic Church positions it as a potential bridge across borders for both individuals and policy conversations.
The right of free movement is something that the world would like to maintain, but that does not mean that no regulations can be imposed on the movement of peoples between countries. It does mean that legal migration pathways should be expanded and strengthened. Processing refugee applications in Mexico would also be a welcome change. The root causes are deep, in the Central American countries especially, where unstable political situations exacerbate the plight of many, particularly the poor.
The underlying problem we deal with is the negative attitude toward migrants coming to our country, especially those who cross our borders without authorization. At face value, this is an important issue, but there is a more pressing humanitarian concern that we cannot ignore. It is so important that the Church be the Good Samaritan in today’s world, taking care of those on the wayside, not fearing lawsuits or other incriminations, and doing what Jesus told us in the Gospel, to welcome the stranger.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who retired as the Bishop of Brooklyn on Nov. 30, is continuing his work and research on undocumented migration in the United States.