The following address was given at a panel discussion on immigration on Tuesday, September 1.
As you know, Pope Francis will join us for the World Meeting of Families later this month, and immigration is an issue close to his heart. So I’m pleased to be here and to share this time with you.
Tonight, I want to talk about immigrant families. Immigration can be a tough issue. At least one of our presidential candidates has already made the national immigration debate ugly with a great deal of belligerent bombast. His success in the polls shows that many people – including many good people – are very uneasy about the direction of our country. And immigration is a topic with obvious economic, national security and legal dimensions.
For the Church, immigration is mainly about the human aspects of the issue – in other words, how our policies should protect human dignity. Migration is about human beings. So it has moral implications.
Pope Francis has a special sympathy for migrants and refugees worldwide. His first trip as pope was to Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean, to remember migrants who died trying to reach Europe by boat. He spoke about a growing “globalization of indifference” that ignores the pain of those seeking to migrate, and that treats migrants as a part of a “throwaway culture.” Francis will likely return to that message when he visits Philadelphia.
A key concern for the Church is the impact of immigration policy on families, The social costs of a flawed immigration system are immense. Bad immigration laws undermine families and communities. They do special damage to the most vulnerable, starting with children. The damage happens in the sending countries, when a parent leaves home to support his or her family by finding work elsewhere. And it also happens in receiving nations, where undocumented parents can be deported away from their citizen children.
As Christians, our faith obligates us to protect migrant families. As Pope Pius XII said many decades ago, “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family.” In 2007, Benedict XVI compared the flight of the Holy Family to today’s persons on the move: “In this misfortune experienced by the Family of Nazareth, obliged to take refuge in Egypt, we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted. The Family of Nazareth reflects the image of God safeguarded in the heart of every human family, even if disfigured and weakened by emigration.”
In 2014, Pope Francis echoed this same theme: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph knew what it meant to leave their own country and become migrants: threatened by Herod’s lust for power, they were forced to take flight and seek refuge in Egypt. But the maternal heart of Mary and the compassionate heart of Joseph, the Protector of the Holy Family, never doubted that God would always be with them. Through their intercession, may that same firm certainty dwell in the heart of every migrant and refugee.”
With the Holy Family as her “model and protector of every migrant, alien, and refugee,” the Church is committed to helping migrants with the resources needed for their well-being. The duty and the privilege of that commitment apply to all of us equally.
In welcoming migrant families, we need to grasp the global inequities that force the separation of families. Poverty and violence in their home countries force parents to leave their children behind and earn money in foreign lands to support them. Or in some cases, parents send their children away to other countries to protect them from harm. We see this today in Central America, where parents send their children to the United States and other nations to escape the bloodshed of organized criminal networks.
But here in the United States and elsewhere, immigration laws often don’t take into account the social costs of separated families. Many nations, including our own, have immigration policies that weaken, rather than strengthen, the family. I’ll give you a few examples.
First, we’ve recently experienced a record U.S. deportation rate, with roughly 2.6 million persons deported under the Obama administration. This brutally affects immigrant families — especially those with children who are U.S. citizens. Some 75,000 families with U.S. citizen children are wounded every year by deportation, with one or both parents removed from American soil. Some of these same children have been forced to follow their parents to countries they don’t know. Others have stayed in the United States without their parents.
We need to ask ourselves: Do we really want to invest in young U.S. citizens — the future leaders of our nation — by deporting their parents? The answer should be obvious. And this is why the U.S. Catholic bishops supported the administration’s decision to provide relief to immigrant families last November.
Second, our nation continues to detain families — young mothers with children — who are fleeing violence in Central America. These families pose no threat to anyone. Detaining them is inhumane. And good alternatives to detention already exist, including community-based case management services that ensure families comply with their legal obligations and also receive the help they need.
Third, we need to preserve birthright citizenship. Birthright citizenship ensures that children don’t become stateless or part of a chronic underclass. It’s also a constitutional right. It means that any immigrant family is only a generation away from integrating fully into our nation. Some in public life – notably, but not only, Donald Trump — have called for an end to birthright citizenship. This is a profoundly bad idea. It plays on our worst fears and resentments. And it undermines one of the pillars of the American founding and national identity.
Fourth, Congress is now discussing a shift of focus away from family reunification as the centrepiece of our immigration system, and toward a stress on economic migration based on a person’s skills, not family ties. Again, this is a bad idea. The waiting time for the reunification of families already can be as long as 20 years, giving families little hope of legalizing their status. Instead of dismantling the family-based legal immigration system, we need to improve it.
Now in light of these facts, let me offer just a few suggestions. In all things, we need to respect the rule of law. This a key element of our immigration system. But we also need to revise and strengthen our laws in favor of the family, the seed of a healthy society:
First, Congress needs to stop squabbling and pass real immigration reform, including a legalization program that gives undocumented persons an honest, attainable chance at citizenship. Such a program would ensure that families can stay together and become permanent contributors to their communities. It would protect them from separation caused by deportation. And obviously the White House needs to deal with Congress in a spirit of genuine compromise and cooperation – which has not always been the case. Both of our major political parties have brought us to our current gridlock.
Second, family reunification must remain a cornerstone of our immigration system. This means that the legal immigration process must expedite the reunification of families and that the refugee program must make family reunification a main goal.
Third, our nation should not detain families. The practice is needless and inhumane. The U.S. bishops are encouraged by a recent federal court order ending this practice and urge the Obama administration to comply with it.
Fourth, birthright citizenship should be maintained. As I’ve already mentioned, this will prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of persons who are effectively stateless.
Fifth and finally, the global community must find a way to address the root causes of migration, so that families can live decently in their home countries. This is much more easily said than done. Current international organizations are limited in what they can do, and often have ideological baggage that can make matters worse. But poverty and conflict in sending countries are problems that inevitably spill across borders and impact developed societies. These problems cannot be solved on a quick fix or ad hoc basis. They need a coordinated response from wealthy nations over the long-term. The bottom line is this: Parents should never feel forced to leave their families behind in order to support them by finding work abroad. And they should never be forced to send their children away because of the threat of violence.
I hope these ideas will at least offer some seeds for discussion. I also hope they’ll become part of the discourse surrounding the World Meeting of Families and the visit of Pope Francis later this month. I urge all of you to be vigorous advocates for the migrant family, as modelled and protected by the Holy Family of Nazareth.
As the Holy Father tells us in his 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees message, the Church must continue to defend those who are most vulnerable: “The Church without frontiers, Mother to all, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place, or disposable.”
Thank you, and God bless you.
Kenneth A. Gavin
Director of Communications