Standing atop an outcrop of rocks in Saguaro National Park in Arizona, I could not help but be drawn in by the beauty of the vast expanse before me, with its stunning blue sky and far-reaching desert dotted with seemingly every kind of cacti. Despite its appeal, however, this incredible place hid so much pain and suffering.
The Pima County Medical Examiner, which records the deaths of all people in that part of Arizona, recovered the bodies of 2,816 undocumented people in the desert between 2000 and 2017. Given the immensity of the Sonoran Desert, it is not hard to imagine that there are many other people who have yet to be discovered.
What would cause these people to leave their homes, risking life and limb to cross the desert of a country whose welcome can be almost as harsh as the elements they must endure in the wilderness? Many flee poverty and the violence that often accompanies it. Having visited a man at a detention center for migrants in Arizona, and having volunteered at the Guadalupe Homeless Project throughout my high school and undergrad careers, I can assure you that no one undertakes the journey lightly. It is the last resort for so many simply seeking to stay alive.
As American Catholics, we might say that we cannot truly consider ourselves “pro-life” unless that includes caring for the lives of human beings crossing into the United States. Scripturally, we are told to love the foreigner and not to oppress the stranger (Ex. 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:10, 33-34; Deut. 10:16-19; etc.).
Doctrinally, the Church has much to say on the issue of migrants and refugees. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The more prosperous nations are obliged…to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him” (CCC 2241).
It is certainly important to qualify the above with the rest of that section, which in part reads, “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions.” It would seem that the Church gives equal weight to a conservative or a progressive interpretation of the passage, depending on which half one chooses to emphasize. The Church, however, through its larger body of teachings, comes down on the side of migrants and their rights.
Under the approval of Pope Saint John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People published Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi in 2004. This document does not emphasize the rights of the state and the rights of migrants equally. Of the over 100 articles and 22,000 words in the document, state sovereignty in determining immigration policy is mentioned only once, in a parenthetical sentence referencing a pontifical message given in 1993.
Furthermore, in his 2011 message for the 97th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Benedict XVI—citing Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra and Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Octogesima Adveniens—notes that the Church recognizes every person’s right to emigrate and to seek a better life in another country. While Pope Benedict noted the legitimacy of states’ rights, his overwhelming emphasis was on the human person, and on the vast majority migrants who seek nothing more than a better life for themselves and their families.
Taking a step back to look more broadly at the Church’s teaching, it becomes apparent that even though the Catholic Church may seem to treat states’ rights and migrants’ rights equally, its emphasis is overwhelmingly on the latter, and on the responsibilities that Catholics have in welcoming migrants and refugees. The Church recognizes that migrant issues cannot be solved on an esoteric or philosophical level, but a personal one. We are called to a conversion of heart, to recognize the human dignity of those who risk what they have to find refuge.
Challenging us in our discernment, Monsignor Charles Pope, writing for the National Catholic Register, calls us to consider the following questions: How Catholic is my stance on immigration? Is my view based in the faith or merely in my preferences or political leanings? Do I agree that, as a prosperous nation, we should be generous in accepting and welcoming refugees and immigrants? Do I understand that proper laws governing the immigration process are valid, but should be in service of the common good, and should assist in welcoming the stranger in a humane and orderly way?