The Crisis in Refugee Protection and Everyday Catholics 

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

The Crisis in Refugee Protection and Everyday Catholics 

Nearly 30 years ago, I represented a slight, unassuming teen who had fled Haiti in an unseaworthy boat.  The US Coast Guard interdicted the boat and transported its occupants to Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba.  At Guantánamo, US officials interviewed this “unaccompanied minor” and 37,000 other Haitians, allowing nearly 11,000 to seek asylum in the United States. It returned the others to Haiti. The boy’s father had been an official in the regime of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s democratically elected president. After the Haitian military and its surrogates deposed Aristide, they embarked on a killing spree of his supporters. In an act of terror and intimidation, the killers left the bodies of their victims, including the boy’s father, to be eaten by dogs and to rot in the sun.  Persons who claimed the bodies of loved ones put themselves at risk. 

After his father’s murder, my client had been threatened, pursued and forced into hiding, often sleeping out of doors, until his family saved enough for his passage. His legal claim rested on his father’s killing: the teen belonged to a “social group” (his family) whose members had a well-founded fear of persecution. His claim also rested on his own acts of protest against the forces that had killed his father and tried to kill him.  Ultimately, an asylum officer granted him asylum. His claim was strong, but what he had endured was not exceptional, as asylum and refugee claims go. If you passed him those days walking to high school or working at a local grocery store, you might not have noticed him.  You certainly would not have recognized him as the courageous person I knew, or understood his abiding hope to live again with his mother and siblings.  

The Catholic Church calls us to see migrants not as “others,” but as human beings, our brothers and sisters, created in God’s image. Yet migrants have been scandalously portrayed as criminals, terrorists, public health threats, and frauds – calumnies that paved the way for the dismantling of much of the US asylum system. Many prior US administrations pressured other nations to intercept and prevent asylum-seekers from reaching US borders. The Trump administration went far further. It expelled migrants at the US-Mexico border on public health grounds without assessing their fear of return.  Its “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) forced tens of thousands to await their US asylum hearings in dangerous Mexican border cities, relegating them to squalid conditions and – in hundreds of documented cases and likely many more unreported cases – to murder, rape, kidnapping, and assault.  It entered farcical agreements with refugee-producing Central American countries to adjudicate the cases of US asylum-seekers. It sought to eliminate entire categories of asylum claims. At a time of record numbers of forcibly displaced persons, it reduced US refugee admissions to historically low levels, eviscerated the public-private infrastructure that has saved the lives of more than three million refugees since 1980, and decimated the community-based resettlement networks that the Catholic Church, other religious communities, and countless governmental and non-governmental partners built over many decades.   

The Biden administration has retained some of these policies, as evidenced by its expulsion of Haitian and other asylum-seekers to countries riven by strife, poverty and disaster. It has reversed other Trump-era initiatives and has been temporarily blocked by the courts from terminating still others, such as MPP.  

Since September 2021, the United States has admitted 76,000 Afghan evacuees under Operation Allies Welcome. Most Afghans have arrived through the “humanitarian parole” program, which does not lead to permanent residence. They have received basic resettlement services, but need long-term integration services and permanent status. In addition, Ukrainians have begun to arrive at the US-Mexico border, seeking asylum. Others will come through the family-based visa program, and perhaps many more through the US refugee program. The Biden administration argues, with merit, that it inherited hollowed-out humanitarian and refugee protection systems, which it must rebuild in the midst of multiple crises. As it stands, the United States admitted only 4,362 refugees in the first four months of FY 2022 and only 76,000 between 2018 and 2021. Even before the current crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees and their families referred to the US resettlement program had been waiting for years in perilous conditions abroad.   

What does the Church teach and ask of everyday Catholics – those not migrants and refugees themselves – in these circumstances?  In Pope Pius XII ’s words, it teaches us to see in refugee families the “émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt” as “the archetype of every refugee family.” It urges us, in Pope Francis‘s words, to see migrants not as a “secondary issue,” but to “stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children,” as “Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt. 25:35).”  It exhorts us to move beyond political rhetoric and to go to the peripheries – whether in our own communities or elsewhere – to “encounter” immigrants and refugees. This may seem a simplistic and insufficient response to such a large problem, but encounter can change hearts and minds.  It can allow natives to see newcomers clearly which, to a Catholic, means to see them the way that God does.  

In the late 1990s, I met a priest living near the border in Douglas, Arizona. He had been deeply troubled and conflicted, he told me, by criticism from parishioners over his ministry to migrants. One evening a young couple had knocked on his door in a panic because they had lost their child when a Border Patrol helicopter scattered their group. He spent the night with the desperate parents trying to locate the child.  The experience called him, he said, to remain on the side of this young couple and others in similar circumstances, not in an exclusive way or as a political partisan, but as a Christian.

In an interview last year on Face the Nation, Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, highlighted the clarifying effect of human engagement: 

I always encourage everyone to come down and see for themselves, because if you get close enough, like I get close enough to the families and accompany them and see for yourself, you can be able to really, truly understand better what is happening and feel what I feel so that we can reach out to help, you know, because honestly, this … should not be about politics. It needs to be about people, because that’s what we’re seeing here at the border.  

Migrants have “been through so much,” she said, “but they’re- they’re hopeful, hopeful, you know, that maybe now they have a chance to be somewhere safe.” Pope Francis memorably described in 2014 what it might mean to view migrants in a totally new light: 

[M]igrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. They are 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 and a more open and evangelical Christian community. Migration can offer possibilities for a new evangelization, open vistas for the growth of a new humanity foreshadowed in the paschal mystery: a humanity for which every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.

An encounter with a refugee, asylum-seeker, or migrant might lead a Catholic to support Catholic initiatives that seek to allow persons to live secure, productive lives in their home communities, or to help meet the many needs of migrants in transit, or to help immigrants integrate in their new communities. It might lead to supporting the public policy work of the US bishops, or helping refugees to resettle, or welcoming newcomers in parishes, or providing financial assistance to a family whose breadwinner has been deported, or visiting migrants in detention.  It could also lead to a deeper understanding of the many ways that immigrants contribute to US communities. 

The media and politicians often decry what they characterize as “refugee” or “border” crises.  But the real crises are the conditions that displace so many human beings and deny them a secure and permanent home. The Church teaches that everyone has a right to flourish in their home communities, a right that is sometimes characterized as the right not to have to migrate. Yet the “root causes” of forced migration typically make flourishing or even survival impossible. They include war, genocide, violence, breakdowns of the rule of law, criminal predation, corruption, the ravages of climate change, natural and manmade disaster, hunger, lack of opportunity, and domestic violence. 

As anyone transfixed by the daily outrages in Ukraine can see, the suffering is real.  And, of course, it is not limited to the crises receiving the most press attention. On a trip to migrant shelters in Central America and Mexico, my colleagues and I heard over and over that pervasive gang control of many neighborhoods made even daily trips to and from school a harrowing experience. As one person put it, “if you’re young and poor, your lives are at risk every day.”  In interviewing Venezuelan migrants in shelters in Chile and Peru, we heard story after story of persons who had left their countries on foot or sometimes moped, and desperately needed work so they could send money to their starving and ill family members. On a US bishops’ delegation visit to the US-Mexico border some years ago, a disconsolate boy broke down as he explained that he had failed in his goal to find work, so he could send money home to his poor family. Now, he would not be able to do so. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported on the record 84 million forcibly displaced persons in mid-2021, including 26.6 million refugees, numbers that will continue to swell. Tellingly, 85 percent of the word’s refugees live in developing countries in proximity to refugee-producing countries. Not everyone can or wants to come to the United States. They do want, however, to live safe and productive lives. 

Most persons at grave risk do not meet the narrow definition of a refugee or asylee; i.e., someone “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The forcibly displaced in mid-2021 also included 48 million internally displaced persons (within their countries), 4.4 million asylum-seekers, and 3.9 million Venezuelans displaced abroad (not asylum-seekers or refugees).  These figures do not count persons displaced by the effects of climate change or by gross poverty. Even during a year of widespread restrictions on mobility due to COVID-19, the number of forcibly displaced rose 4 percent in 2020 and has increased more than 100 percent since 2010.  

On December 17, 2018, the UN General Assembly General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees. Only Hungary and the United States opposed its adoption. The Holy See played an important role in the consultations leading to this historic, albeit non-legally binding document. The Compact seeks equitable responsibility-sharing and sustainable solutions for refugees. 

The Church does not abide individual indifference to suffering or what the Holy Father has characterized as “the globalization of indifference.”  The facts bear him out.  Traditionally, refugees have been able to avail themselves of only three “durable solutions” – integration into the communities to which they have fled, safe and voluntary repatriation to their home countries, and resettlement in third countries.  However, these alternatives have not kept pace with the numbers of newly displaced, and many refugee situations have persisted for years, sometimes over multiple generations. Few refugees want to admit that they will not likely be able to return home for years, if ever, but this proves to be the case for most.  In 2020, for example, only 251,000 refugees were able to return to their countries of origin and only 34,400 were resettled in third countries.  

The Compact supports the expanded use of traditional durable solutions, along with new “complementary” means of protection, such as allowing refugees to migrate through legal migration channels based on employment, family ties, education, and humanitarian considerations. The document implicitly points to a striking anomaly: Refugees and other forced migrants need to cross borders to survive, but often cannot do so through legal avenues, whereas persons like me and perhaps you do not strictly need to travel, but we can do so easily. The Holy See strongly believes that resolving refugee-producing situations and establishing sufficient permanent alternatives for refugees requires international cooperation. 

I have had the privilege in life to meet countless immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the United States and elsewhere, as well as many in migrant shelters, community centers, and detention facilities.  I have also worked most of my career with diverse Catholic immigrant-serving institutions, many of them immigrant-led.  I work now for the Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo (the Scalabrinians), which ministers to migrants, refugees, and immigrants throughout the world.   

My agency coordinates a project called the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII), and organizes a regular conference of immigrant-serving Catholic agencies, programs and ministries – parishes, charities, relief and development organizations, border agencies, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, organizers, foundations, refugee resettlement, legal immigration, ministerial organizations, and many others. This event is open to the public. The next will be a hybrid in-person/virtual conference on September 13 and 14 at Marquette University. The initiative has adopted a working Catholic vision of integration that lifts up the gifts and agency of immigrants, seeks communion between culturally diverse persons based on their shared values, and emphasizes the Church’s mission to evangelize culture. Participants are committed to gathering “into one the dispersed children of God” (Jn. 11:52) and to building what Pope Francis recently called “an ever wider ‘we’” in which there are “no more others, but only one us.”  

CIII has lifted up research that documents the great vitality and growth of Catholic parishes and other ministries in many parts of the country due to the infusion of newcomers. It has also highlighted institutional challenges in serving immigrants, such as immigration enforcement policies that divide and terrorize mixed-status families, hostility to immigrants in local communities, the lack of diverse leadership in many Catholic institutions, and the normal funding problems that beset these programs and ministries. Participants have occasionally expressed bewilderment at their co-religionists and Catholic leaders who do not speak against the very harsh and stigmatizing rhetoric directed at immigrants by public figures and amplified by media sources, including select Catholic media. 

Two of the honorees at my agency’s annual gala last year, Randy McGrorty and Myriam Mezadieu, started working with Haitian asylum-seekers in the early 1990s in the same program in which I met my young Haitian client. In 1998, they co-founded Catholic Legal Services (CLS) of the Archdiocese of Miami. Over the years, CLS has become one of the nation’s finest charitable legal service agencies for immigrants. Its 55-person staff, including 32 attorneys and six federally-accredited representatives, serve 2,000 immigrants a month, most of them from across the Americas. CLS’s staff reflect their diversity.  But CLS is more than a legal agency: it is an agency rooted in the hopes and aspirations of persons who seek freedom, security, and opportunity.  Myriam calls it a blessing and a mission.

Romaire Desir, a CLS client and paralegal, who fled Haiti in 2014, paid tribute to Randy and Myriam at our event. He began by expressing pride that even though his own immigration situation was unresolved and he still needed help, he could now help the community himself. This is a common aspiration of immigrants: they want to contribute. Romaire thanked the CLS family on behalf of his own family and the countless immigrants it has served. He spoke to what everyday Catholics and the Church can accomplish at their very best. 

“In the midst of crises and tempests,” the Holy Father told a General Audience in 2020, “the Lord calls to us and invites us to reawaken and activate” a “solidarity capable of giving solidity, support and meaning to these hours in which everything seems to be wrecked.” Everything seems wrecked in Ukraine and many other places this Lenten season, and the Lord calls us to live our faith. 


A shorter version of this article was published by Our Sunday Visitor on April 4, 2022 under the title, “The crisis in refugee protection (and the role of everyday Catholics).”

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication April 7, 2022