The Local Church Needs to Protect the Lives of Migrants. Pope Francis Shows Us the Way.

Father Pat Murphy, c.s.
Centro Scalabrini – Casa del Migrante
Tijuana, Mexico

The Local Church Needs to Protect the Lives of Migrants. Pope Francis Shows Us the Way.

On July 22nd at about 2:40 p.m., a small group of police arrived at Centro de día para Migrantes “Jesús Torres” in Torreon Mexico, a shelter and community center for migrants run by the Jesuits. When the police arrived, they began to immediately violate the human rights of a group of 12 Honduran migrants. Their hands were placed against the wall and all possessions (including money) were confiscated from them. They were being accused of all sorts of crimes and treated with extreme aggression. As members of the Centro team tried to come to their rescue, they were also threatened and treated with aggression. The next day the police returned and violently grabbed some of the volunteers and verbally threatened them. It was a scary 24 hours for the staff and guests of the shelter.

In response to this violence, the Jesuit Services in Mexico published a statement denouncing these abuses and asking for a response from all levels of government. So far, no official response has been offered, but the shelter continues to operate and courageously serve the migrants who arrive daily at its doors. The local Church in Torreon has offered this group of 12 migrants some protection at a great moment of need and is an example to all of us in Mexico of what it means to walk in solidarity with our migrants’ brothers and sisters on their treacherous journey.

This incident demonstrates the necessity of an active presence of the local Church to defend the rights of the immigrants and it highlights the current challenges of walking with our migrant brothers and sisters in Mexico.

On their journey of searching for a better life, we are called to offer food for the journey, shelter for rest, and clothing against elements. However, we are also called to speak up for migrants and, when needed, defend their human rights. We cannot choose between speaking up or providing material support. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must do both.

In his 2018 Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis outlined the challenging and specific way that all followers of Jesus must answer the gospel call to welcome the stranger. In that message, Pope Francis offered us a four-point plan of action based on four action verbs:

  • To welcome all immigrants
  • To protect people on the move
  • To promote our migrant brothers and sisters
  • To integrate migrants and refugees

What did Pope Francis have in mind when he issued this pastoral action plan? I think the beauty of it is that he kept the plan simple so that all people could contribute. In sharing his plan, Pope Francis did not offer any political solutions but suggested four specific ways in which the Church and all people of goodwill could accompany people on the move and offer pastoral care.

Pope Francis is inviting us to cross over the borders of our heart, which so often hold us back from becoming more welcoming of our brothers and sisters on the move. The call to be missionaries with migrants is a universal one. It is not only for Scalabrinians or a few volunteers.

Pope Francis has also called us to build bridges and not walls. Walls are not only the physical structure across the southern United States to keep people out. Walls are also the structures we build within our hearts that keep us from engaging with people who look and act differently than us. If we want to protect human rights, we might need to do some open-heart surgery and help people move from closed hearts to open hearts, from suffocating hearts to compassionate hearts, and from hateful hearts to loving hearts

We cannot be so complacent as to remain on the purely intellectual level of saying supportive things about migrants. Rather, we are called to take risks and to offer consistent pastoral care. We must not be afraid to be in solidarity with people on the move and to speak up for them in our own social circles and church.

I remember one day being at a meeting of priests of our area. One of the priests, who had a degree in Canon Law from Rome, remarked to me, “Father Pat, I have some migrants for you over at my parish.”

So, I asked him, “Oh, really when did they arrive?”

“A few years ago.”

“Well, Father,” I said. “In that case, those immigrants belong to you, and you should be actively integrating them into the life of your parish.”

To integrate migrants cannot be about passing them on to another priest or to a Casa del Migrante. It must be about helping them feel at home as full members of their new local parish community. This might take some effort and involve some risk, but it is part of our missionary call as Church.

To promote migrants is all about first seeing them as fully human. Sometimes migrants are referred to as enemies or as “aliens” from another planet, which is how immigration laws in the United States refer to undocumented immigrants. The Church needs to resist this rhetoric by speaking frequently and forcefully about the inherent dignity and worth of every migrant, refugee, and newcomer.

However, the local Church often misses the mark. On one occasion, I spoke with a Catholic leader about how we could help our Church see the protection of our immigrant brothers and sisters as a life issue. He dismissed the idea and began to speak to me about abortion.

The Church has presented wonderful national and international documents to guide its work immigrants and refugees, but so often the implementation of these documents fails to trickle down.

We are called to protect immigrants and refugees. But how can we do that if very few priests, religious, Church leadership, and lay Catholics are willing to defend the lives of migrants by speaking up about their inherent dignity and value?

I have been in mission at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana for 8 years. I would love to say that things are getting better, but the reality is every day things seem to get worse. To summarize the lack of protection:

  • The government of Mexico has failed miserably to offer any assistance or protection to the thousands of people stuck along the northern and southern borders of Mexico over the last two years
  • Drug cartels rule the country and intimidate local people and recently arrived immigrants.
  • People arrive along the border running for their lives to escape violence and all they find here in Tijuana is the very same problems they are trying to escape from back home. So many tell us their phones are tracked, and they keep receiving threatening messages.
  • There is militarization of the border led by the National Guard and local police that needs to be seen to be believed. The local police are out of control and only committed to beating and robbing migrants. Official complaints take months to process, and no one believes anything will ever change, so why bother?
  • The Biden administration initially gave us a great deal of hope, but over six months into his presidency and nothing has changed here. There is no asylum at the US-Mexico border due to Title 42, and people keep getting expelled to Tijuana.

Despite all the bad news, there is some good news, and it is found in the relentless spirit of the migrant people who remain eternally optimistic. Que si Dios quiere todo sale bien. (God willing everything will turn out well). To welcome is to allow ourselves to be filled with their spirit for a better life and to keep going and to fight harder to better lives.

The presence of the local Church is essential to accompany migrants on their journey. Indeed, there are many good things happening with the presence of so many priests, religious communities, and dedicated lay folks, but there is so much more that needs to be done. The local church needs to be convinced more than ever that the accompaniment and protection of the human rights of immigrants is not just a hobby for few but rather a gospel mandate for all followers of Jesus.

August 30, 2021