The Catholic Church’s Commitment to Immigrants and Refugees at the Dawn of the Trump Era

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Jurga Jot / Shutterstock

The Catholic Church’s Commitment to Immigrants and Refugees at the Dawn of the Trump Era

On November 28-30, 2016, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), the University of San Diego (USD) and Catholic Charities of Diocese of San Diego co-sponsored the third annual gathering of the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII). The CIII joins diverse Catholic institutions around a common goal, i.e., to facilitate the full participation of immigrants in the Church and the broader society. In their 2003 pastoral statement, Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope, the US and Mexican bishops wrote: “Faith in the presence of Christ in the migrant leads to a conversion of mind and heart, which leads to a renewed spirit of communion and to the building of structures of solidarity to accompany the migrant.” The statement neatly summarizes CIII’s mission, i.e., to build communion and “structures of solidarity.” Yet, the event took place in the wake of a presidential election in which the winning candidate regularly savaged immigrants and refugees, but nonetheless enjoyed the support of a large majority of white Catholics and a slim majority of all Catholics. It also occurred at the beginning of Advent, the celebration of God’s decisive journey to humankind and the birth of Jesus to a Middle Eastern refugee family.

Over an emotionally charged two days, participants grappled with how to create inclusive communities at the dawn of the Trump era, which will likely begin with revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (which provides a reprieve from the threat of removal to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children), and could then move to mass deportations, special registration of people from Muslim-majority nations, a substantial cut in refugee admissions, and large-scale social dislocation and unrest. If the latter claim seems hyperbolic, consider that 6.6 million US citizen children live with an undocumented resident (typically a parent), 2.9 million undocumented residents came to the United States at age 14 or younger, and 47 percent of the 11 million undocumented has lived in the United States for at least 15 years.

Many participants wondered why their parish priests and bishops had failed to speak in their defense during the election campaign and why so many of their coreligionists were willing, at the very least, to overlook Trump’s slanderous attacks on them. Would any other religious community, they wondered, ignore such consequential threats toward its members?

In his first papal trip, Pope Francis traveled to the island of Lampedusa where he decried the “globalization of indifference” and expressed outrage at the world’s apathy over migrant deaths: “it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!” In the CIII opening session, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego directly addressed President-elect Trump’s campaign pledges. Criticizing “the specter of a massive deportation campaign aimed at ripping more than ten million undocumented immigrants from their lives and families,” McElroy said:

We must label this policy proposal for what it is — an act of injustice which would stain our national honor in the same manner as the progressive dispossessions of the Native American peoples of the United States and the internment of the Japanese.

For us, as the Catholic community of the United States, it is unthinkable that we will stand by while more than ten percent of our flock is ripped from our midst and deported. It is equally unthinkable that we as Church will witness the destruction of our historic national outreach to refugees at a time when the need to offer safe haven to refugees is growing throughout the world.

A Migrant People, Then and Now

Migration is something of a mystery in plain view in Scripture, more often than not the context for humankind’s encounter with God. The Jewish people came into being through migration. They fled persecution, suffered in exile, and ultimately returned home. From this experience, they learn to love and empathize with refugees and immigrants (Lev 19:33). In a panel discussion of faith leaders at the gathering, Rabbi Laurie Coskey argued that the Jewish people could not think of themselves as anything but migrants. In the Pentateuch, the moral imperative to love the stranger recurs three dozen times. Abraham Joven, director of the Justice for Immigrants campaign in the Diocese of San Bernardino, evoked the tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican child migrants in recent years by reminding event participants that “Moses was an unaccompanied minor.”

Fr. Allan Deck, S.J., Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, who delivered CMS’s Fr. Lydio F. Tomasi, C.S. Annual Lecture on International Migration, stressed that migration is the way that our loving God makes himself known to man:

And can Christians ever forget that Jesus Christ himself was a refugee from the despotic terror of King Herod; or, more astonishingly, that the Trinitarian God of Christians became, as it were, a “displaced person” through the Incarnation, the central mystery of Christian faith?

Although many Catholics view immigration through a partisan political lens, Christ taught that our salvation depends, in part, on how truly we welcome refugees and immigrants.

Today, once again, immigrant communities are among those most in need of Catholic educational, health, charitable, community organizing, pastoral, and legal programs. Moreover, the viability of these institutions increasingly depends on the participation and leadership of immigrants, particularly the rapidly expanding second and third generations. To take the example of the largest US ethnic group, Hispanics represent two-thirds of millennials who regularly attend mass and 55 percent of all US Catholics under age 30. In a workshop on immigrant youth led by CMS’s Daniela Alulema, panelists made the point that immigrants and their children represent not only the future, but the present of the Catholic Church in the United States. As Fr. Daniel Groody has written, the Church should not “plan for” newcomers, as if they were merely “passive recipients” of its mission, but should treat them as leaders and evangelizers. Some of the Church’s most effective parish-based ministries with immigrants, like the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Pastoral Migratoria, combine leadership development, service, and advocacy, and view all of this work as a form of evangelization.

Communion, Not Scapegoating

After the long and divisive presidential campaign, several speakers argued for a recommitment to the common good. Bishop McElroy called for “a comprehensive compassion for all those who are suffering in our midst, combined with care, analysis and action.” He said:

The reality that young black men fear for their security when facing law enforcement, the sense of dispossession felt by young white men in the Rust Belt without a college education, the fear that police face every day trying to protect society, rampant patterns of sexual harassment and assault directed against women, the institutionalized patterns of poverty and ever-increasing economic inequality in America — these are all wounds in our society which must be addressed.

Brett Hoover, assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, employed the concept of cultural encapsulation to explain how distinct groups often live in mutually unintelligible worlds, even though they share physical and political space. Implicit in these statements is the conviction that the Church should work to bridge the divide between people of goodwill and to challenge the ethic of a socio-economic system that dismisses millions as “losers.”

In contrast, the Church seeks to create conditions that allow all members of the society to flourish (the common good), to foster “right relations” between community members (justice), and to build unity between native and immigrant communities based on the shared, life-giving values embedded in their diverse cultures (communion). The effectiveness of Church institutions as integrating agencies requires solidarity, which Saint John Paul II famously characterized as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” Solidarity, in turn, demands presence and accompaniment, said Sr. Janice Vanderneck, director of Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is what Fr. Deck called the “nitty gritty care for the marginal.”

Pope Francis’s pastoral vision, said Deck, moves “from doctrine through compassion to action — what some refer to as ‘from orthodoxy through orthopathy to orthopraxis’ — and away from mere theory and doctrine to loving, affective engagement with the ‘other,’ the outsider, the excluded.” At its heart “is a deep sense of compassion, mercy, and pastoral care,” and a “shift to “pastorality” … [that] is the way and the method of Jesus Christ himself in the Gospel.” Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s., the director of Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, spoke of the need “to keep the doors of mercy open in our hearts.”

Yet, the presidential campaign seemed to make bigotry, nativism, and scapegoating more open and acceptable. To scapegoat is to attribute a community’s collective problems to a particular group, and to cast out its members symbolically, even physically. Its dynamics are always the same: label a vulnerable group a threat or a burden, ascribe to the group the actual or perceived offenses of any of its members, and blame individual offenses on the group’s supposedly pathological culture. Under this circular illogic, refugees, the victims of terrorism, become a terrorist threat. And, hard-working, family-oriented immigrants imperil the American dream and the sovereignty of a nation of immigrants.

During the presidential campaign, a student at a Catholic university shared with me a trenchant essay on the distorting effect of scapegoating:

Today the liberal democracies of the West, centers of culture and thought that should embody the ideals of tolerance and liberty, are poisoned by rising xenophobia. Many good Americans and Europeans, faced with terrorism and economic uncertainty, have allowed themselves to become blinded by fear. In willful ignorance they have found a scapegoat in the most vulnerable of our society, immigrants and refugees. They see a shadow on a wall, a dark and terrifying shape, and are too afraid to turn around and look at the object that casts it. If they did, they would see a worker who wants to work, a student who wants to learn, a family that wants to raise children in peace. They would see a perfect embodiment of the ideals on which our countries were founded. But because they look only at the shadow, they turn their backs on the American dream, the Czech dream, the human dream.

Of course, in the not too distant past, US Catholics of European heritage endured vicious scapegoating precisely because of their faith. “[H]ow quickly,” the Holy Father recently marveled, “those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant or a refugee become a threat, take on the status of an enemy.”

Walls or Bridges

The conference took place in a binational border community, divided by a double wall. In his opening greeting, President James Harris characterized the University of San Diego as an immigrant university in a binational community, which would stand in solidarity with DACA students and other undocumented persons. He vowed that the university would not provide information on its undocumented students absent “a subpoena or a court order.” Quoting Lincoln on the need to summon the better angels of our nature, Harris insisted that the United States could not return to an era in which whole categories of residents were invisible and excluded.

Archbishop Francisco Moreno Barrón said his Archdiocese of Tijuana had “an immigrant face, made up of a mosaic of persons from diverse places, cultures, languages and traditions.” Since May 26, 2016, more than 10,000 Haitians have arrived in Tijuana, after a long and dangerous journey from Brazil, overwhelming the capacity of the city’s five migrant shelters. He contrasted Donald Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the US-Mexico border and deporting millions of undocumented persons, with Pope Francis’s call to create “a culture of encounter” and “to break down walls and build bridges.” “What is abundantly clear,” he said, “is that having already two, the last thing we need is another wall.”

After the conference, many in the group toured migrant shelters in Tijuana packed with US deportees, as well as Haitians and others seeking to enter the United States. Catholic teaching supports the authority of states to regulate migration in a humane manner and in furtherance of the common good. Politicians and the press often characterize irregular migration, even by refugees, as a threat to the rule of law. Yet violations of the law by federal border officials have escaped serious scrutiny. Migrants and shelter providers reported that border officials frequently denied desperate asylum seekers the right under US law to an interview by a trained asylum officer, confirming the findings from a recent report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Instead, US officials tell asylum seekers that the United States does not consider the claims of Central Americans or those with temporary legal status in Mexico, and insists that they return to Mexico. Several studies have also demonstrated high levels of physical violence and verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents. Other reports document the forced separation of family members during the deportation process and the inhumane treatment of migrants in Border Patrol holding cells. Corruption and complicity in migrant smuggling by rogue Border Patrol agents and officials at ports-of-entry further erode the rule of law.

The Response to What May Come

Bishop McElroy argued for the need to engage President-elect Trump on “a more focused immigration policy,” but warned that “a stance of waiting has its perils”:

For it can lead to the ever-greater normalization of mass deportations which will be harder to stop down the road. And this waiting has a horrendous price in the suffering which is already occurring within the undocumented community within our nation who are paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and the harshness of statements made during the campaign.

If the Trump administration appears intent on pursuing massive deportations, he said, “the Catholic community must move immediately to wide-scale opposition” and “must move with the same energy, commitment and immediacy that have characterized Catholic opposition on the issues of abortion and religious liberty in recent years.” It “can never acquiesce in or cooperate with such a grave evil in our society.” In an October interview, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, similarly called “mass deportation” a “brutal proposal” and characterized the return of Central American and Mexican refugees who are “marked for death” as “formal cooperation with an intrinsic evil.”

Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), described several steps that Catholic institutions could take in response to this possibility. For example, a remarkable 15 to 20 percent of the undocumented may already be eligible for immigration status, but do not know it or cannot afford to pursue. Catholic legal programs can screen the undocumented for immigration benefits and relief. The need to promote citizenship in immigrant communities remains another pressing priority. The Catholic Church, Atkinson said, should also support state and local laws that facilitate immigrant integration and well-being.

Speaking to the uncertainty of Trump’s plans, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson exhorted the gathering to be patient, resolved, and determined, and not to falter and not to fail. Dr. Robert Moser, the new executive director of Catholic Charities of San Diego, made the point that refugee resettlement agencies had long struggled with the challenge of fluctuating admission numbers, insufficient funding, and onerous government oversight. Thus, he said that these agencies might now have the opportunity to become more rooted in their own faith traditions and priorities.

The Good Samaritan

After the election, CMS posted a pre-election presentation of mine at Furman University on Catholic social teaching and immigration. It began with a reflection on the Good Samaritan parable, drawing from a talk by Fr. William O’Neil, S.J., Professor at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Fr. O’Neil pointed out that this parable was not really about the identity of the “neighbor.” His identity was never in dispute: he was the traveler who had been beaten, robbed, and left half-dead by the side of the road. Rather, the parable illustrated how to be a neighbor. Upsetting all the conventions and stereotypes of the day, the Samaritan — the schismatic, the reviled foreigner, perhaps the equivalent to today’s Syrian refugee or Mexican undocumented worker — acted like a neighbor.

The Good Samaritan came up repeatedly during the conference, as did stories of the generosity of migrants and refugees. Estela Villagrán Manancero, director of the Office of Latino Ministry, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, for example, recounted how established refugee groups extended their programs and ministries to more recent arrivals. Fr. Pat Murphy, C.S., spoke of the constant stream of community contributions to Casa del Migrante. Bp. Kicanas described migrants as instruments of conversion and relayed his own experience in Altar, Mexico with migrants who entrusted their lives to God on their perilous journeys.

A friend, who had read my reflection on the parable, asked: “And who builds the roads today? And who’s responsible for making them safe for travelers?” [The answers: mostly immigrants and, though none too well, the state.] David Hall, outreach ministries pastor for the evangelical Emmanuel Faith Community Church, reported that his congregants struggled with: (1) their primary identity as citizens of the kingdom, not national citizens; (2) the imperative to love the neighbor who God puts in our path; (3) the need to see all people as God sees them, as the children of God; and (4) the importance of recognizing God’s hand in human history, including in migration. In fact, the parable addresses all of these questions.

Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, spoke of the need to love not the neighbors we choose, but those given to us, and of God’s unconditional command to love the stranger, whatever their status, religion, or nationality. Fr. Deck called that “the concept of Samaritanism (samaritanidad)” the “fundamental quality of the Church of all time,” which leads to “an ever-deepening compassion for others that draws us closer to Jesus in the way of the Cross.” The neighbor, I jotted down in my notes, is the other who the Other puts in our path and calls us to love.


What to do in this period of uncertainty and trepidation? Bp. McElroy said that a path would emerge based on our relationship with a loving God and reminded the group that, in any event, this was our fundamental state in life. His words reminded me of the virtue of humility, which is not resignation to unconscionable conditions, but knowing who we are in relation to God and neighbor and acting on that reality. He concluded with a reflection on Advent and what lies ahead:

Advent is a time of waiting. But for the Jewish people, waiting was not a passive activity. It was a time of building justice, proclaiming God’s Word and deepening unity. Let these days be for us just such a time of waiting, in order to discern more fully the intentions of our new government. But in our waiting let us always remember that we are called to be the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses, and the disciples of the Jesus who himself was refugee and immigrant. And in that waiting, let us always make clear that we stand with the undocumented and the refugee communities in this moment of suffering in a bond of accompaniment and protection which will only grow stronger as the threats grow more profound.

As the conference neared its end, participants developed ideas for how Catholic institutions could create a more welcoming church and could serve and advocate more effectively for immigrants. However, the group also wondered if the Church would provide prophetic witness to the Gospel message by drawing a line in the sand and committing itself fully to a large social goal. Fr. Clete Kiley, Special Advisor to Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and director of immigration policy for UNITE HERE, passed on a question from a union colleague: “Would the Church be willing to serve as a kind of underground railroad in the event of massive deportations?” I wondered: Would it fight the deportation of DACA recipients, the 3.8 million parents (without status) of US citizens, and the many million undocumented residents tentatively approved for family-based visas or with long tenure in the country? Would it evoke its core commitment to religious liberty to oppose a special registration program targeted at persons from Muslim-majority countries? Would it unify in opposition to a moratorium on the admission of Middle Eastern refugees? Its standard vows to stand in solidarity with immigrants and to seek generous immigration reform seemed insufficient to the struggles of its members and to the demands of its own teaching. Would it chart a politically expedient course, or would it model the Good Shepherd and, in the evocative words of the Holy Father, take on “the smell of sheep” in their time of need?

In early December, a letter from Bp. Nicholas DiMarzio was read at all masses in the Diocese of Brooklyn. It offered “comfort and support to the many immigrants — documented and undocumented — who find themselves … in a miserable condition because of a change of the administration of our nation which has threatened many with deportation.” It pledged to protect and advocate for immigrants, particularly those with US-born children. “[W]e will always welcome the stranger amongst us, no matter what your legal status,” it said, because the “law of God takes precedence over human laws, and to this we must be witnesses.