Refugees and immigrants can be found all around the world. Some nations open their arms to them; others raise their fists. Some welcome them; others reject them and turn them away. Yet immigrants and refugees continue to arrive, seeking asylum, searching for security, wanting a decent life.
When I served with Catholic Relief Services, I met Syrian and Iraqi people in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. Their stories shocked and upset me. Their lives had been suddenly uprooted. They were forced to leave behind everything they valued to save their lives.
One man carried his aged, diabetic mother over hills as he crossed the border from Syria to Lebanon. Another brought his pregnant wife and two children across the border, terrified that they would be caught and detained. Still another, a 73-year-old man, left his medications behind as he fled the only town he had known, having lost two sons who cared for him.
Countless lives have been disrupted in similar ways all around the world. When peaceful nations hear such tragic stories, how can they not seek to help? It is true that accepting refugees can cause economic, political and societal distress that can seem overwhelming, but we must have hearts that understand human suffering and respond with compassion.
Suffering abounds around the world. So many people today struggle for a decent, dignified way of life. How can we not see that? That indignity is the reason people are willing to travel by cramped, unseaworthy boats, the reason they forge on for hundreds of miles on foot or journey across oceans and through dangerous deserts into lands and cultures they do not know. They are seeking safety, a semblance of dignity, a better life for themselves and their families.
The Tucson Sector of the U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency, where I live, has become the center of migrant movement into the United States. I have met immigrants from Mexico and Central America who made the journey north in hopes of a better life in the United States, only to be sent back.
I have met migrants stacked in crowded casas de huespedes (guest houses) in Altar, Sonora, waiting to make their trek north. Most were young men carrying knapsacks and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe to protect them on their journey.
I have visited the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, where a Jesuit program called the Kino Border Initiative feeds migrants deported from the United States and runs a shelter that houses deported women and children for their protection. When you meet migrants and hear their stories, you quickly see that they are just like us. These migrants want only a decent way of life and jobs to sustain themselves and their families. They want their children to have a chance at a better life.
I met a young man 16 years of age at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson. He was from Chiapas, but spoke neither Spanish nor English, only his indigenous tongue. He came north by train to find work to help his single mother with five children.
He leapt from the train, or the bestia, the “beast” as it is often called by people on this perilous journey, but lost his footing and was sucked under the churning train’s wheels. He lost his leg. He never realized his dream. His hopes to care for his family and improve his life were both devastated in an instant.
I have met so-called Dreamers, young adults living in the United States without legal status who had been brought north when they were tiny children. These young people inspire. They are filled with desire to contribute to our community, but they live in the shadows with their families.
Many undocumented persons live in the Diocese of Tucson the way they do in many other places around the United States. They live, day in and day out, in fear of losing everything they have worked for—sometimes over many years. At any time, family members living without documentation can be stopped for a minor traffic violation that can lead to their deportation and separation from their loved ones.
Recently, many unaccompanied minors and women from Central America flooded to the border. Some of these people certainly were refugees fleeing violence. Others, like people I mentioned earlier, were looking for a better life. I met many women with their children at the Greyhound bus station in Tucson as they waited to catch a bus to be united with a family member somewhere in the states. Many had experienced a treacherous, terrifying journey, oftentimes in danger of being abused by cruel people along the way. Their stories of survival are shocking. We need to understand their experience. These are women and children, babes in arms, toddler siblings led into this country by their “older” brothers or sisters, who often are no more than 12 or 13 years old themselves. Imagine a parent’s fears. Imagine what must be going on in these migrant’s homelands that forces them to send their children into the unknown.
As federal authorities struggled to help these innocent and frightened people by finding temporary living arrangements in a school setting outside of Tucson, some Americans stood in the road intent on stopping a bus filled with these unaccompanied minors from entering their community. At the same time, others, some from our Catholic parish in Oracle, Ariz., well aware of the plight of these youngsters, sought to counter the efforts of the protestors with welcome signs. They cried loudly, “Have a Heart!” to drown out the protestors’ shouts of “Stay away.”
The Have-Lots and the Have-Nots
The movement of peoples around the world continues. Nations and their citizens have different responses. Fear of an “invasion” grips some, while others seek to help the “invaders.” Some people worry their own lives will be compromised, threatened by helping their neighbors, while others seek to help even at a cost to themselves.
Greater unanimity of response will occur only when and if we recognize that we live in a hugely unequal world in which .05 percent of the global population holds well over one third of the world’s wealth, a world in which two billion people live on less than $2 a day. Our efforts should be to strive, as St. Ignatius suggested, to live for others, not to hold on to our advantage. Only when we see suffering, pain and inequality and are moved by them can change of attitude happen. That change will lead to taking steps to help.
This process is at the heart of the Gospel and is the central message that Pope Francis offers as his clarion cry and heartfelt witness. Francis calls for us to become a “church without frontiers, the mother of all.” See our world, as Pope Francis does, as a “field hospital” facing desperate need—and be moved to respond.
My prayer is that Pope Francis, when he visits the United States and speaks to a joint session of the Congress, will raise the issue of immigration and the challenges that exist along the U.S./Mexico border. He understands the plight of migrants and refugees as he witnessed personally in his visit to Lampedusa, Italy, where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants land after fleeing persecution, war and poverty or tyranny in their homelands. Francis’ presence will call our nation to complete the frustrated effort to pass comprehensive immigration policy reform and encourage our blessed nation to work to enhance and improve the economy of sending nations as well as to remind our country to be our brother’s keeper, to help respond to the inequality still so prominent in the world.