Surveying a chaotic global landscape of people in flight, whether out of harm’s way from Syria to Europe or from crime and oppression in Central America to the United States, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich called for a humane response from U.S. political leaders. “In neglecting the immigrant, we begin to lose something of our soul as a nation,” Archbishop Cupich said. “The world will measure what we say about liberty and justice against our actions,” he said. “So, if we want liberty and justice, let us give liberty and justice.”
Archbishop Cupich was speaking in Chicago at the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice For Immigrants Conference. The conference brought over 300 participants from 64 dioceses and archdioceses together to focus on migration issues that will confront the church and nation in the months and years ahead.
In a keynote address on Nov. 11, Archbishop Cupich urged that the United States finally fix its broken immigration system, begin treating migrants to its borders as people in need of protection, not detention and begin responding more generously to the Middle East crisis by accepting more people for refugee resettlement. The archbishop acknowledged that sovereign nations have to control their borders and to enforce their laws, “but at the same time [the church argues] that all of this must be done in a way that upholds human dignity and American values.”
He told the conference attendees, “When warnings with harsh rhetoric are raised that some immigrants who come from certain religious backgrounds are a threat to our way of worship and way of life, your voice of reason is needed to remind us all that our nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty.
“When some press to criminalize millions of persons who have been here for years, built equities in this country, worked hard, and paid taxes, your voice on their behalf preserves our heritage as a country of equal opportunity and fair play.”
He added, “When some want to deprive children of their parents’ love, remove young men and women from the only country they have known, and tear the fabric of whole communities, your advocacy stirs the nations memory of the self-evident truth that we are all equally endowed with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He noted that according to the United Nations there are more displaced persons in the world today than any time since World War II. “As many as 60 million persons driven from their homes by wars and conflicts, and the destitution they bring, and half of them are children….with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution and conflict,” he said.
“Closer to home, we see tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families—young mothers with children—fleeing violence in Central America, attempting to find safety in neighboring countries and the United States.” Instead of the merciful response encouraged by Pope Francis, he said, “We have witnessed record deportations over the past several years, with thousands of families being torn apart—children separated from their parents, spouses from each other,” he said.
“Sadly, a broken political system means that our elected officials continue in their failure to fix a broken immigration system—both dysfunctions harm us all.” The archbishop urged U.S. political leaders to reverse current policy aimed at deterring migration through law enforcement, to instead focus on protecting migrants from Central America, many of whom are children and teens escaping political or gang violence in their home countries. “All refugees should have a real opportunity to tell their stories to a judge, assisted by legal counsel, and should not be detained unnecessarily. Family detention, which further traumatizes women and children, should be ended,” he said.
Archbishop Cupich urged politicians at the national level to consider regional investments that would discourage migration in the first place, rather than costly outlays on enforcement which intercepts desperate people at times of their greatest vulnerability. “Instead of exporting enforcement resources, we must export development assistance, especially targeted at youth development, and protection systems that give fleeing persons a chance at safe haven in the region,” he said. “All of this has enormous consequences for our stature in the world. If we are unable to meet the humanitarian challenge in our own backyard, we will lose our stature as a humanitarian leader globally.”
Few religious or even political leaders have highlighted the plight of migrants as frequently as Pope Francis, Archbishop Cupich reminded his audience. During his address to Congress this fall, “he asked our elected officials to apply the Golden Rule in responding to those less fortunate who ask us for help: ‘In a word,’ he said, ‘if we want security let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunity, let us give opportunity. The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us.’”
Archbishop Cupich urged the advocates and defenders of migrants gathered for the conference to continue to frame the debate about migration issues in moral terms to “encourage the general population to take a step back and see the dignity and value of these people.”
“For instance,” he added, “we need to be honest about something that is seldom reported—our country benefits from the toil, taxes, and purchasing power of a large number of undocumented workers (8 million), yet we do not at the same time offer them the protections of the law. The moral issue here is that we cannot have it both ways—exploit and use these people without honoring their God-given rights. The basic sense of fairness is very much alive in the American spirit, and we should appeal to it as we talk to others about immigrants.”
Immigrants have always been the source of vibrancy and renewal in the United States, Archbishop Cupich said, especially in a place like Chicago, a city which “welcomes newcomers” and honors “people who take the risk of starting out fresh.”
“Their aspirations,” he said, “have always been the same as all of us—to find a better life, to care for their family, to leave behind poverty, violence and oppression.”