“The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” – Psalm 34
Part I: Church Teaching
Amidst an extremely contentious atmosphere in the broader U.S. political culture, and in the American Catholic Church, it is easy to fall into the fallacious argument of moderation or false equivalence regarding the issue of immigration. Over the past several years, prominent U.S. Catholic commentators, such as George Weigel, have cautioned U.S. Catholics (and some U.S. Bishops) about speaking too forcefully with regards to immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a 2014 interview, George Weigel said, “It’s not clear to me that the principles behind a Catholic approach to immigration reform have been well articulated at all.” The primary thesis of this letter is that the Catholic Church does, in fact, have well-articulated principles regarding immigration and the application of these principles gives a clear path forward towards immigration reform in the United States.
As in all things, we should begin our discussion with the finding of such principles in Sacred Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people are instructed to give preference for the poor and the foreigner. Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs the Israelites to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the fallen grapes for the “poor and the alien”. In Leviticus 19:34, it is written that “you must count him [a stranger] as one of your own countrymen and love him as yourself – for you were once strangers yourselves in Egypt” and “cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” Proverbs 31:8-9 urges the reader to speak out in defense of the poor and desolate, while Isaiah 58:5-7 asserts that working for justice for the poor and oppressed is the most authentic form of worship of the Lord.
As we move to the New Testament infancy narratives, we learn of the harrowing flight into Egypt by the Holy Family, who were fleeing persecution in Bethlehem. Later, as He begins His mission, our Lord declares that He is to bring glad tidings to the poor and to free the oppressed (Luke 4:18). The first Beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount turns the world upside down by declaring “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Finally, in Matthew 25, our Lord reminds us that He is present in the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the stranger, and the imprisoned.
Following our experience of Sacred Scripture, we should now turn to Sacred Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2241 eloquently sums up the Catholic position on immigration: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”
Before outlining brief policy solutions at the end of this letter, a review of two principles of Catholic social teaching is necessary: the preferential option for the poor and the universal destination of goods. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis, “A consistent theme of Catholic social teaching is the option or love of preference for the poor. Today, this preference has to be expressed in worldwide dimensions, embracing the immense numbers of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care, and those without hope.” Pope Benedict XVI echoed this statement in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, by stating “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.”
The principle of the universal destination of goods provides an even stronger case for the ethical obligation wealthy nations have towards the poor. Gaudium et Spes declared, “the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods. If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.” Pope St. Paul VI more simply stated in his 1967 encyclical Populorum progressio, “. . . the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations.” Further, Pope St. Paul VI, in continuity with the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, refutes any assertion that this principle applies only to individual acts of charity, but rather applies even to the international level. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope St. John Paul II affirms this by writing, “On the contrary, it has always understood this right [to private property] within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” Thus, one could make an argument that immigrants seeking a better life in the United States are only taking what is truly theirs per the universal destination of goods.
Part II: The Historical Record
In discussing the morality of U.S. immigration policy regarding its southern border, there is an important, but often forgotten, consideration towards providing justice: the involvement of the United States in Latin America. U.S. foreign relations in Latin America began in the early 19th Century with the Monroe Doctrine, which warned against further European intervention in Latin America and the establishment of additional European colonies. During the 1880s, U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s “Big Brother” policy, as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, attempted to rally Latin American nations behind U.S. leadership and open their markets to U.S. traders. Over the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, U.S. foreign relations in Central America were marked by a series of military interventions aimed at protecting U.S. commercial interests. This led to several regime changes in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico, as well as construction of the Panama Canal. The United States maintained full control of the Panama Canal until 1977 and joint control until 1999 in effort to ensure its maritime trade access. This quick summary is not meant to paint the former Latin American regimes as “good” and the American-backed regimes as “bad”, but as a reminder of the long-standing political interest in Latin America the United States has held for most of its history.
The Cold War-era U.S. interventions were marked by a fervor to prevent real or perceived leftist/Marxist regimes in Latin America, along with a committed defense of U.S. corporate interests. In 1954, the U.S. orchestrated a coup in Guatemala resulting in the overthrow of the democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz and installation of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first of a line of right-wing dictators in Guatemala. This was done for ideological reasons, due to concern of possible leftist sympathies in the Árbenz administration, and to protect the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that felt threatened by Árbenz’s policies. In 1961, the United States assassinated the genocidal dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who was then replaced by a democratically-elected government. Unfortunately, even U.S.-backed forces during the subsequent civil war in the Dominican Republic were involved in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that led to the death of 3,000 civilians. From 1980-1992, the United States backed the military junta in El Salvador in its civil war against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLF. The government forces engaged in genocide and “scorched earth policies” which resulted in the deaths of 75,000 civilians. Saint Oscar Romeró, a critic of the policies of government-backed forces, was murdered while celebrating Mass, retribution for his outspoken defense of his people against the crimes of the military junta.
Since the Cold War ended, many actions of the United States have not led to lasting stability in the region. In 2009, the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup-d’etat. The subsequent migration of Hondurans was thereby a direct product of the violent and politically unstable environment created by the U.S.-backed regime. Currently, the United States spends approximately $50 billion in foreign aid, which is just over 1% of total federal spending per year. 53.7% ($598 billion) of federal discretionary spending goes toward the military budget, which has increased for the fifth consecutive year. Most of this aid does not go to Latin America, but to nations in Africa and the Middle East. For the 2019 fiscal year, President Trump has requested $1.1 billion in aid to Latin American and Caribbean nations, which is down 34% from $1.7 billion in 2018. This slashing in federal funding is due to President Trump’s insistence that Central American nations such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are not doing enough to prevent emigration to the United States.
Part III: The Causes of Migration
For every migrant from Central America to the United States, there can be a multitude of reasons for their harrowing trek. In October 2018, the International Organization for Migration conducted an observational survey of a group of Salvadoran migrants journeying together in a caravan heading north. Of the migrants surveyed, nearly 52% cited economic opportunity as their incentive for leaving the region, while 18% cited violence and insecurity, and 2% cited family reunification; 28% cited a combination of those factors. Most migrants come searching for better economic prospects. Day laborers in Central America earn in one day what they could earn in half an hour in the United States. However, many also come escaping political and gang-related violence in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. Girls and young women are subject to sexual abuse and trafficking in their home countries and on their emigration to the United States.
Central America is also more susceptible to environmental instability than many other regions of the world. According to the 2018 World Risk Index, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the 15 countries in the world most at-risk from natural disasters due to their frequent exposure and weak response capacity. According to the 2017 UN World Food Program, repeated droughts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have led to unprecedented levels of food insecurity.
It has been suggested that many immigrants who come to the United States come for nefarious purposes. However, multiple studies have shown that both legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes – including violent crimes – than native-born U.S. citizens, and higher concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower crime rates (Klein et al. 2017, 229-253; Butcher et al. 2007).
Finally, many of the migrants have relatives living in the United States or other Central American nations that provide remittances to their families living in less economically prosperous regions. With widespread access to cell phones and the internet, it is thus much easier for migrants to coordinate immigration to the U.S. or other parts of Central America.
Part IV: The Trials They Face
Although the harrowing perils migrants face on their northward journey are no secret, the scale of their experienced trauma can be difficult to grasp. According to a study by Doctors Without Borders’ shelters in Mexico, two-thirds of migrants interviewed reported suffering at least one violent attack – such as assault, rape or kidnapping – during their trek. Nine out of ten migrants seen by DWB psychologists this year showed symptoms of anxiety or depression caused by violence and threats suffered during the journey. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, these migrants face likely detention by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and possible deportation. For those who make it across the U.S. southern border, they often have difficulty finding asylum, shelter, employment, and affordable healthcare in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. As of July 16, 2019, the Trump administration announced it will move to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
From early 2017 through June 2018, the Trump administration instituted a family separation policy which resulted in an official count of 2,727 children being separated from their families. However, in January 2019, the administration acknowledged thousands more may have been separated, unable to provide an exact number. On July 26, 2018, the Trump administration stated 1,447 children had been reunited with their families, but the House Committee on Oversight and Reform reported in July 2019 over 700 children had been separated from their families after the official ending of the family separation policy in June 2018.
The detention of children and the family separation policy has been broadly condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association, with the American Academy of Pediatrics saying the policy has caused “irreparable harm” to the children. Multiple studies of detained children have universally shown negative physical and psychological ramifications related to their detainment (Lorek et. al 2009 573-583; Kronik et al. 2015, 287). Many develop long-term posttraumatic symptoms, poor psychological adjustment, developmental delay, and decreased academic performance (Mares et al. 2004, 520-526; Dudley et al. 2012, 285-294; Fazel and Stein 2003, 134). Further, qualitative reports about detained, unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other behavioral problems (Baily 2011, 4-11). Even brief periods of detainment (hours to days) can cause psychological trauma and pose long-term physical and mental health risks (Kronik et al. 2015, 287).
The harmful effects of detainment found in children have also been replicated in adults. They have been found to have higher rates of musculoskeletal, gastro-intestinal, respiratory, and neurological complaints than non-detainees, likely due to prior lack of healthcare access and increased psychological stress due to detainment (Deans et al. 2013, 776-778). Unsurprisingly, they also commonly experience anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, difficulty with relationships, and self-harming behavior in rates higher than non-detainees (Porter and Haslam 2005, 602-612; Momartin et al. 2006, 357-361; Robiant et al. 2009, 306-312; Coffey et al. 2010, 2070-2079; Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children 2007). Not only does detainment harm adult and children’s physical and mental health, but it undermines parental authority and parents’ ability to care for and support their children’s needs (Kronik et al. 2015, 287).
While most of the above studies were not conducted with regards to immigrants detained at the U.S. southern border, case reports in the last several years corroborate the previously established studies. Detention facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border have been described as having “prison-like conditions,”with inconsistent access to medical, dental, and mental healthcare, along with lack of educational opportunities for children (Keller et. al 2003; Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children 2007; National Immigrant Justice Center 2014). During these investigations, the interviewed parents described regressive behavioral changes in their children, including decreased eating, sleep disturbances, clinginess, withdrawal, self-injurious behavior, and aggression (Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children 2007; National Immigrant Justice Center 2014; Linton et al. 2017). Further, those interviewed often exhibited mental health symptoms themselves, such as anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, along with difficulty parenting and a strain in parent-child relationships (Linton et al. 2017; Weisleder et al. 2016).
Part V: A Modest Proposal
Contrary to George Weigel’s assertion, the principles outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic social teaching can be clearly and directly applied to the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. As outlined in Parts II-IV, the United States has a profound connection with the cultures, economies, and governments of Central America. Most of the refugees face a journey all but guaranteed to result in long-lasting mental harm and likely physical harm. Upon arrival to the Land of the Free, migrants have been systematically dehumanized in detainment camps under threat of deportation back to the same poverty and violence they sought to escape. To address this issue, the United States government has slashed aid to the regions most in need of it and continues to deny asylum to immigrants from the poorest of Central American nations.
In response, the Gospel unequivocally calls us, as Catholics and humans, to support these demands of justice:
- End family separation at the U.S. border immediately and give highest priority to reuniting parents and their children.
- Vastly increase the amount of aid directed to Central American nations.
- Grant political asylum for all immigrants fleeing gang and drug-related violence. Take them at their word and do not hesitate in liberally granting asylum to those who ask.
- Grant a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States to alleviate the threat of deportation on them and their dependents. No person who has not committed violent or drug-related crime, especially children and minors, should live under the fear of being sent back to poverty and violence.
- Create a fast-track process for legal immigration to the United States from Mexico and Central America. Provide avenues to allow large numbers of immigrants to migrate legally and facilitate their integration into American society.
- Secure the U.S.-Mexico border to ensure the safety of future migrants and U.S. citizens from drug-and-gang related violence.
Edited by: Zachary Maher
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