After Lampedusa: Lessons from Pope Francis on caring for migrants
The negative rhetoric arising on so many fronts about immigrants living in our country and as we discuss how to fix a badly broken immigration system is both sad and deafening. Blame and damnation are heaped upon the heads of our immigrant brothers and sisters, while scant attention is paid to their human dignity and their incalculable contributions to the betterment of our society, our economy and our communities.
On July 8 Pope Francis went to the island of Lampedusa off the coast of southern Italy to visit this first bit of land which people from northern Africa encounter when they migrate, out of desperation, from their home countries. Their journeys are dangerous and uncertain, but their hopes and dreams for better lives for themselves and their families motivate them to take the risk of the perilous sea crossing.
Pope Francis’ homily that day challenges people everywhere to drastically reconsider our conversations about the immigrants living and working in our midst. There is only one valid focus for us disciples of Jesus Christ: the human person created in the image and likeness of God. That is the principal lens through which we must view our immigrant brothers and sisters.
Sadly, the public and political discourse about immigrants and immigration reform makes little reference to immigrants as brothers and sisters with inherent dignity and rights. There is such ignorance about why they are here in our country in the first place, their hopes for their families and their deep longing to help make our country a better place for everyone. The words and phrases swirling about in the national discussion are sad and condemning: “ those criminals”; “go back to where you came from”; “stop breaking our laws”; “you’re draining all of our public service programs”; “you are taking jobs from Americans”; “you don’t speak English” and the like.
Jesus Christ taught us by word and example that we are to see his face upon the faces of all in need, and we are to respond to those faces with love, an open heart and a ready generosity: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35).
That is the only clear and undistorted lens through which we as disciples of Jesus can properly view our brothers and sisters. When we attempt to tint or adjust that lens and see immigrants to the United States through the distortions of ignorant and mean-spirited negativity, our vision of Jesus has become blurred and we no longer see him clearly.
‘Where Is Your Brother?’
Speaking of Adam and of Cain, Pope Francis reminds us at Lampedusa: “Harmony was lost; man erred and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. ‘The other’ is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort.”
Focusing sharply upon the humanity of the immigrants trying to reach Lampedusa, Francis said: “ ‘Where is your brother?’ His [Cain’s] blood cries out to me, says the Lord. This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance and fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!....Before arriving here, [they] were at the mercy of traffickers, people who exploit the poverty of others, people who live off the misery of others. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here.”
Pope Francis was speaking of those who perished on the seas attempting to reach Lampedusa. In a similar struggle countless numbers have died on the deserts of Arizona and Texas trying to reach a better life here in the United States.
Pope Francis reminds us how to experience compassion, how to weep, how to understand people who are different from us: “And so it continues…Let us ask the Lord to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this [Lampedusa]. ‘Has any one wept?’ Today has anyone wept in our world?”
All of us as disciples of Jesus are required—no, obliged—to experience a deep change of heart as we view and discuss the immigrants living among us. We bring to this national discourse what is most desperately needed: a sharp focus upon the human dignity of one another as Jesus and Pope Francis have called us. When you and I get caught up in the secondary issues, we always set aside the human dignity of our brothers and sisters, and we treat immigrants as a problem to be rid of.
Reform’s Talking Points
A truly comprehensive immigration reform is achievable if we set aside the distortions and delaying tactics. The U.S. Bishops have consistently emphasized the essential elements for a humane reform of our broken immigration reform (see www.justiceforimmigrants.org/index.shtml for more detail), and I urge you to review those elements:
Focus on Sending Country Opportunities. Many migrants are compelled to leave their homes out of economic necessity in order to provide even the most basic of needs for themselves and their families. International efforts are needed to create conditions in sending countries so that people can find meaningful employment in their home countries.
Family Reunification. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents must endure many years of separation from close family members who want to join them in the United States. Backlogs of available visas means waits of 10, 15 or more years. A reduction in the backlog is needed, along with more visas for family reunification.
Temporary Worker Program. The U.S. economy depends upon the labor provided by migrants; many come here to fill low-paying, low-skill jobs. A better system is needed to balance the need for workers with the available work. To avoid abuses, those temporary workers need guarantees such as a path to permanent residency, job portability, labor protections for U.S. workers and wages and benefits which do not undercut domestic workers.
Broad-based Legalization. An earned path to beginning legal status, to be followed by legal residency and eventual citizenship, is essential for the 11 million living in the shadows of our society and economy.
Restoration of Due Process. In recent years, immigrants have been subject to laws and policies that debase our country’s fundamental commitment to individual liberties and due process. These laws and policies—including detention for months without charges, secret hearings and ethnic profiling—signal a sea change in our government’s policies and attitudes towards immigrants. Appropriate changes consistent with due process rights are essential.
A comprehensive immigration reform will stay sharply focused upon the human dignity and value of each person, consistent with the focus emphasized by Jesus in his words and actions, and by Pope Francis, who calls us to see in every brother and sister someone to be loved.