The migrant caravan through the eyes of Catholic social teaching

A caravan of thousands has reignited the immigration debate in the United States just weeks before midterm elections.

The United Nations estimates that 7,200 migrants, largely from Central America, have entered Mexico and are making their way toward the United States. With at least 1,000 miles left in their journey, their fate remains unclear.

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President Donald Trump raised the profile of this migrant exodus, commenting on the caravan numerous times on Twitter and threatening to halt aid to Central American countries if the migrants are not stopped.

“Hard to believe that with thousands of people from South of the Border, walking unimpeded toward our country in the form of large Caravans, that the Democrats won’t approve legislation that will allow laws for the protection of our country,” Mr. Trump tweeted Oct. 17. “Great Midterm issue for Republicans!”

The caravan calls to mind two seemingly conflicting principles in Catholic social teaching: the right to migrate and the right of sovereign nations to control their borders. Yet Kristin E. Heyer, theology professor at Boston College, explained that the right to control borders is not absolute.

The United Nations estimates that 7,200 migrants have entered Mexico and are making their way toward the United States. With at least 1,000 miles left in their journey, their fate remains unclear.

“In the case of blatant human rights violations, the right to state sovereignty is relativized by the tradition’s primary commitment to protecting human dignity,” she said in an email to America. “Whereas limits may be set, the tradition emphasizes that powerful nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migrant flows and that the right to asylum must not be denied when people’s lives are genuinely threatened in their homeland.”

Many of the migrants in the caravan are fleeing Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries are beset by “the world’s highest murder rates, deaths linked to drug trafficking and organized crime and endemic poverty,” Ms. Heyer said.

“The value of securing borders has to be weighed against these rights of asylum seekers to seek protection and the demands of social justice,” she said.

Although much smaller in number, another organized caravan caught worldwide attention earlier this year. That caravan reached a size of more than 1,200, but only 200 reached the U.S. border, according to the Associated Press. Many of these migrants in the end sought asylum in Mexico.

Taking a different approach from his U.S. counterpart, Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the United States, Canada and Mexico could work together to develop poor areas of Central America and southern Mexico. “In this way we confront the phenomenon of migration, because he who leaves his town does not leave for pleasure but out of necessity,” Mr. Lopez Obrador said on Oct. 21.

Many are fleeing countries beset by “the world’s highest murder rates, deaths linked to drug trafficking and organized crime and endemic poverty.”

“Unfortunately, President Trump’s tweets about the approaching caravan employ his preferred law-and-order lens, which casts immigrants as willful lawbreakers, posing threats to our physical and economic security,” Ms. Heyer said. “These portrayals of asylum seekers as dangerous criminals taking advantage of ‘loopholes,’ which he has highlighted since announcing his candidacy and throughout implementation of new enforcement strategies, reflect false assumptions and facile analyses of complex push factors.”

The “America first” mindset, she said, “diverts attention from root causes, U.S. complicity and lasting policy reforms.” Migrants are cast as threats to security, despite many studies that have shown otherwise, Ms. Heyer said.

“Fear of difference—even of very young children crossing a border and offering themselves to authorities—is relatively easy to mass-market, and it shapes society’s imagination in powerful ways,” she said.

That includes the minds of Catholics, according to Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., professor of theology and Latino studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“We really need to appreciate what we mean when we say the church is ‘catholic,’” he said. “Communion is the result of achieving harmony among difference. Unity is not based on uniformity. It’s difficult because people fear difference.”

“If my neighbor’s house is on fire, I cannot say it isn’t my problem.”

The Trump administration may be playing on those fears in the case of the caravan, Father Deck said. Mr. Trump “has chosen the anti-immigrant stance as something that is useful to him,” he said.

“There’s a tremendous challenge for the Latino community to stand up and confront the issue and not allow itself to be victimized by Trump or anyone else,” Father Deck said. “The faith becomes an energizer that can galvanize people to stand up for the dignity of the human person.”

The dignity of the human person is the foundation of Catholic social teaching, according to David Hollenbach, S.J., a moral theologian at Georgetown University. The unity of the family is also a primary concern in that tradition, especially with respect to immigration.

U.S. citizens do have obligations to each other, Father Hollenbach said, comparing the relationship to the one that a household shares.

“Still, if my neighbor’s house is on fire, I cannot say it isn’t my problem,” he said. “All human beings have a fundamental dignity that demands respect. We cannot say, ‘It’s just Americans’” who deserve human dignity and protection.

In 1948, the United Nations recognized the right of individuals to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. According to the U.N., a well-founded fear of persecution can involve race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. According to its 1951 convention on refugees, the U.N. prohibited asylum seekers from being detained simply for seeking asylum. The convention also recognized that seeking asylum may require individuals to “breach immigration rules.”

The church teaches that people also have the right to migrate because of acute economic necessity. According to a summary of Catholic social teaching on migration from the U.S. bishops: “[P]eople have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. This is based on biblical and ancient Christian teaching that the goods of the earth belong to all people. While the right to private property is defended in Catholic social teaching, individuals do not have the right to use private property without regard for the common good.”

“You don’t say that someone who is fleeing from extreme need should be regarded as a criminal,” Father Hollenbach said.

And, according to “Strangers No LongerTogether on the Journey of Hope, a joint pastoral letter from the Mexican and U.S. bishops, “More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.”

“The defense of the national border is not the only value at stake,” Father Hollenbach said. “When people in other parts of the world are in great need or danger, that takes precedence.”

A number of people who are involved in Central American gangs were deported from the United States, he said. One of the major gangs was founded in Los Angeles. Over decades U.S. policy in Central America has contributed to the region’s current economic, civic and political instability. Many argue its current support of a revived authoritarianism in Honduras has contributed to the urgency of migration out of that Central American state.

“Many are fleeing from the consequences of U.S. action,” Father Hollenbach said. “We should be finding a way to allow people to stay at home safely.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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J Cosgrove
10 months ago

Have you ever thought that the problem could be solved without the whole world trying to get into the United States? Why are Catholic countries so dysfunctional? The author and you don't address that. Yet you admonish other Catholics who recognize this dysfunctionality and want to do something about it and know the last thing that will solve the problem is Catholic Social Teaching.

J Cosgrove
10 months ago

The new president of Mexico wants to employ these migrants In southern Mexico to build a new infrastructure for the future. Is it a solution or a boondoggle?

Mike Macrie
10 months ago

Thank you Dan in reminding us what are Catholic teaching taught us. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, what is the Greatest Commandment ? Jesus answered to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind, and the Second is like the first, to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

Mike Macrie
10 months ago

Thank you Dan in reminding us what are Catholic teaching taught us. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, what is the Greatest Commandment ? Jesus answered to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind, and the Second is like the first, to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

Mike Macrie
10 months ago

Thank you Dan in reminding us what are Catholic teaching taught us. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, what is the Greatest Commandment ? Jesus answered to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind, and the Second is like the first, to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

Mike Macrie
10 months ago

Thank you Dan in reminding us what are Catholic teaching taught us. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, what is the Greatest Commandment ? Jesus answered to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind, and the Second is like the first, to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

John Placette
10 months ago

CCC 2241 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.

Stanley Kopacz
10 months ago

The US has 3X the area of India and 1/3 the population. Think of immigrants as gas molecules expanding into a vacuum. The US is sparsely populated and can absorb plenty of people. If you believe every embryo should be brought to term, birth control is evil and the earth can support unlimited population, then shut up and let them in.

William Bannon
10 months ago

Predictable piece...biased towards a narrative. One girl in the present caravan (?17 years old) had a heartbreaking story of how she is trying to enter the US to find her mother and ask her how could she desert her daughter (her) when she was eight years old just to find better work pay in the US. Her story will never appear here at America as will no stories of desertion of the poor by the poor yet last year, it was similar. A lady in the prior caravan was in the media because her two year old was taken from her. The media loved it because it fit the liberal narrative. But it then developed that she had deserted her boyfriend leaving him without notice with three other kids. Again...a mom deserting children and her man to make it in the USA with one two year old who she probably brought for self motives since she was able to leave three others with no problem. Catholic writing is often not Catholic writing at all. It’s simply narrative writing cloaked in Christ concepts used for the narrative.

Bill Mazzella
10 months ago

We forget how we "invaded" South America to make it "free from Communism and safe for democracy" and the abandoned them when USSR collapsed. Illegal is in the history of American invasion of South America

Tim Donovan
9 months 4 weeks ago

Years ago, I worked in a group home with disabled men and several of my co-workers were immigrants from Liberia. They had fled from a brutal civil war and sought a better life in our nation. I live in a nursing home and many of the staff are immigrants from various African nations. While I don't believe our nation is obligated to accept an unlimited number of immigrants, I do believe that we should welcome as many as possible, since many people are trying to escape violence. God our loving Father taught us, "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10: 19).

Tim Donovan
9 months 4 weeks ago

Years ago, I worked in a group home with disabled men and several of my co-workers were immigrants from Liberia. They had fled from a brutal civil war and sought a better life in our nation. I live in a nursing home and many of the staff are immigrants from various African nations. While I don't believe our nation is obligated to accept an unlimited number of immigrants, I do believe that we should welcome as many as possible, since many people are trying to escape violence. God our loving Father taught us, "

Alexander Lim
9 months 3 weeks ago

This articlle is totally biased, to say the least. It tends to justify that the church and State can work comfortably. The Church has a mission but so does the State.
First of all, the Caravan is made up of people from different countries, not just Central America. And yes, contrary to your assertion, they’re fleeing from poverty, not from persecution; otherwise, they would gratefully accept México’s generous offer. But no, they gave their sights set on the US.
The audacity of their filing a lawsuit against the US and Pres Trump for violating their “Constitutional rights” (Duh?).
Don’t treat these mostly able- bodied men ( yes, a few women and children being brought in by human traffickers) as VICTIMS. We’re the ones being victimized and being played for a fool- with our tax dollars. What about our own- our homeless, our veterans who are down on their luck? Human compassion can only go so far.
To paraphrase the cliche;”Charity begins at home” (While it’s not from the Bible, it’s close enough to be biblical). Another relevant quote: “ Give them an inch and they’ll want the whole foot”. Next thing you know, they’ll want to enforce their own law and culture and expect us to follow (Sharia ?).
We need to care for our own first. America has been very generous but there’s a limit. We can’t take care of the whole world. We can see what’s happening in European countries- now they’re closing their borders. They too, have learned the hard way.Why not let the Vatican do it- with all its money.
This magazine shouldn’t be playing politics but it isn’t surprising. After all, it’s Jesuit run and inherently, Socialist.
Just ask Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit.
A homily I heard while out of town: “ You can shoplift from places like Walmart but not Pop and Mom’s stores and don’t be greedy. Take only what you need”. I kid you not!!
Must’ve be a Jesuit priest.
It’s no wonder Christianity and particularly, Catholicism has been on the decline.
Pres Trump isn’t playing this to his party’s advantage. Obama and Bill Clinton have also mentioned about securing our border ( in case, you’ve forgotten).

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
9 months 3 weeks ago

It is nothing new. The migrant caravan - used to be a regular phenomenon even in pre-biblical times.

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