Pope Francis and President Biden Met to Discuss the Climate Crisis, the Pandemic, and Immigration

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Pope Francis and President Biden Met to Discuss the Climate Crisis, the Pandemic, and Immigration

On Friday, October 29th, President Joe Biden met with Pope Francis in the Vatican during his trip to Europe for the G20 Summit and the UN climate change conference, COP26. According to a Holy See Press Office statement, the leaders discussed “their common commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the health situation, and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the issue of refugees, and how to provide assistance for migrants.”

The Vatican will not release a transcript of the conversation between the Holy Father and the President; however, throughout his eight-year papacy, when speaking on migrants and refugees, Pope Francis has sent a consistent and clear message of welcome to migrants, refugees, and newcomers – one that acknowledges the sanctity of their lives and values their agency and contributions. To Francis, migrants and refugees are not “a problem to be solved,” but rather brothers and sisters and “an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world.”

In Pope Francis’ past discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic and tackling the climate crisis, he has historically included migrants and refugees. In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis wrote a section on “Pandemics and Other Human Calamities,” which is immediately followed by a section on “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders.” For Francis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the abuses of migrants at borders are connected. In a similar vein, Pope Francis has also included migrants and refugees in discussions about the climate crisis. In his second encyclical, Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, he wrote:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world.

While the Pope’s message of welcome has been clear and consistent, President Biden has sent mixed signals on immigration and refugee protection. During Biden’s first ten months in office, the administration has taken positive steps to restore the US immigration and refugee protection regime. It has raised the refugee ceiling to 125,000 for Fiscal Year 2022, ended discriminatory bans on entry for select Muslim majority countries, and halted border wall construction. On the other hand, it has maintained callous policies of the former administration and has yet to restore access to asylum at the US-Mexico border.

The Biden administration has maintained – and has no plan to end – Title 42. The Biden and Trump administrations have used this provision of a 1944 public health order to expel foreign nationals without an asylum screening. The Biden administration attempted to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – a program that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US court hearings. However, after a court challenge, the administration announced it would restore the program rather than issue a second memorandum to halt it.

October 29 marked Biden’s first meeting with the Holy Father since he assumed the office of President. According to the Vatican, the meeting was “cordial,” and footage shows the pair smiling warmly after the meeting. The Associated Press reported that the meeting lasted longer than the scheduled time and longer than Pope Francis’s meetings with past US presidents.

This is not the first time Biden has met Pope Francis. They first met at the Holy Father’s Papal installation in March 2013. In a 2015 interview with America – The Jesuit Review, Biden recalled that initial meeting:

There was a wonderful Irish monsignor who had sat in with me in a long discussion I had with Pope Benedict just several months earlier. He turned [and introduced me to Pope Francis], and the pope reached out and he grabbed my hand and he said, “I know, Mr. Vice President, you’re always welcome here.” That is the message that he’s sending to the world.

President Biden understands the Pope’s message of welcome, and he heard it again on Friday, but to what extent he will bring it to bear on US immigration and refugee policy is yet to be determined.

Update: On October 29, 2021, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memorandum terminating MPP.

October 29, 2021