I’m generally not one to weigh in on the political talk of the day, as those who know me or have been parishioners of mine can attest to. The issues are important and I do have my opinions, but I would rather focus on helping the person right in front of me and let the headlines take care of themselves.
That said, there are times when I feel compelled to speak up, especially on behalf of those who are unable to speak for themselves. I see these people every day in my in my role here at Catholic Charities. They turn to us for help, and they need us to be their voice.
This is one of those times.
The role of immigration laws, as well as refugee and asylum status, has been front and center in the news. In the past few weeks, I’ve lost track of the number of people who have contacted me to say how glad they are to know that Catholic Charities is helping welcome and serve those who come to us from around the world. It’s reassuring and powerful to me to hear that kind of support, because the stories of the people we are helping are breathtakingly sad. I think of a family who fled to the United States from Ethiopia seeking asylum. It was a mother and father and their two young sons. Immediately, the father was detained and sent to a holding facility in California. The mother and two sons were sent to live with a relative in Prince George’s County. After a while, the living situation wasn’t working and the family had to move out.
The family, now homeless, found our Angel’s Watch Shelter. In the meantime, their application for asylum began its slow journey through the immigration court system, a process that typically takes two years. When a family has an asylum application pending, they have a basic, temporary permission to remain in place. But they aren’t yet cleared to work and only receive some form of monetary support for the first eight months they are here. And, since they don’t know if that application could be rejected (meaning they would be deported back to where they fled), it’s very hard to put down roots in your community with any certainty.
Still, we got the two boys enrolled in school and they both started to thrive. The mother, seeking anything to do, actually volunteered at a local gas station – have you ever heard of someone wanting to volunteer at a gas station? These are people who are looking for a hand up, not a handout. It reminds me of the head of our Refugee Center program, also a refugee from Ethiopia. In 2000, he declared asylum while he was here to deliver a lecture at Brown University. Can you guess what his first job was after seeking asylum? Yup, gas station attendant.
On top of everything, the father remained detained in a jail cell across the country, waiting. So imagine the joy when in late January, the family learned their application had been accepted. They were safe. They were home.
We celebrated their news as a family – the entire Angel’s Watch staff was overjoyed. I am happy to report a church community was able to open up and offer them housing while the family was reunited. The father had not seen his family in more than a year and a half!
To me, this is what the immigration debate is about – at the center of this roiling debate, it is about families trying to be safe, holding on to hope, and taking an enormous risk to come to America.
I understand there are many considerations when it comes to immigration policy. I find these three principles of Catholic social teaching to be thoughtful and nuanced guidance for elected officials and all of us. The principles come from decades of Catholic thinking and are part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ teachings on the topic:
1.) People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.
2.) A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.
3.) A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
Balancing those principles is an extremely difficult challenge, and I pray for those tasked with meeting that challenge. In the meantime, we can do our part by living Jesus’ call to love our neighbor and serve the poor.
I think of the fear so many families must experience not knowing their future. My own family is both large and incredibly close-knit. Like most of us, we are descendants of immigrants and our own story could be quite different had our relatives been forbidden entry to America, deported after they arrived or greeted harshly. I cannot begin to imagine life if my family were pulled apart suddenly, and I pray we can find ways to help those families while meeting our duties to the common good.
At Catholic Charities and at so many parishes around the country, we welcome the stranger in very inspiring ways. Our Immigration Legal Services teams are helping provide sound and competent legal representation to families who have a case to plead for their status. Our Refugee Center and Spanish Catholic Center help those who have come here to assimilate into our community and feel included to add their talents and values to our workplaces, our communities, and our culture.
So, please, just remember as our nation works through some really tough decisions, that we are called to welcome those strangers. Think about what you would do for your family if faced with the same devastation of war, famine, or oppression. Wouldn’t you want someone not only to welcome you as a stranger, but to work as hard as they could to help you become their neighbor?