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.
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 Longer: Together 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.