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The EditorsMay 16, 2024
Orlando, a migrant from Ecuador, carries four-year-old Peter as they wade through the Rio Grande from Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas, Oct. 6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

Annunciation House, in El Paso, Tex., receives as many as 1,000 migrants in a single day. Located just north of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the Catholic house of hospitality has served those most in need for nearly 50 years, often maintaining a collaborative relationship with U.S. Border Patrol agents. 

In February, Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas demanded that Annunciation House hand over records of its guests, accusing the outreach group of “human smuggling” and “facilitating illegal entry into the United States.” The community in El Paso, as well as the broader church in the United States, rallied to support Annunciation House. 

“The state of Texas is using governmental pressure to curtail the work of the Church in one of its most fundamental obligations: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, and to provide drink to the thirsty,” Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego said in a statement. “No government can morally tell us to abandon or limit this mission.”

The targeting of Annunciation House is but the most recent development in a disturbing trend of the works of mercy being attacked by politicians and lobbying groups. In December 2022, four House Republicans accused Catholic Charities USA of “facilitating the border crisis.” Earlier that year, Judicial Watch and CatholicVote filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demanding records of communication that the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and of Health and Human Services had “with Catholic organizations near the Texas border that were aiding illegal immigrants.”

Rather than aiming at solutions to immigration issues, these actions seem designed to inflame underlying xenophobic fears in the hopes of capturing votes. Sadly, this pattern of demonizing immigrants and those who offer them aid might prove effective in November. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, taken in January, 78 percent of Americans described the influx of immigrants at the southern border as either a “crisis” or a “major problem.” 

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is no novelty in the United States. The Know Nothing Party, both anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, grew in power and influence during the mid-19th century. Echoes of its influence can be heard in the “great replacement” conspiracies of today. 

Many Americans worry immigrants will take away jobs, overpopulate our cities and deepen cultural differences. But such fears—then and now—are unfounded. Contrary to the perception that they are a burden on the public purse, immigrants are playing a key role in the economic recovery. Demand for workers is high, and employers often report challenges when filling job vacancies, but immigrant workers, who constitute about 19 percent of the workforce, are filling the gap.

And while reports of caravans of undocumented immigrants heading from Latin America to our border dominate news cycles, the number of undocumented workers living in the United States actually decreased by 1.75 million between 2007 and 2021. In fact, more than three-quarters of the foreign-born population are either naturalized citizens or legal permanent residents. (And many of the rest would likely seek citizenship, legal residency or work permits if the legal avenues available to do so matched the number of people the U.S. economy requires.)

The images Americans see of the thousands waiting to enter through our southern border paint a simplistic picture of the immigration dilemma. Not captured in those images is a backlog of pending cases in immigration courts, which currently amounts to more than 3.5 million, according to data compiled by Syracuse University. The current regulatory apparatus simply was not built to accommodate the current flow of migrants, which can overwhelm those who meet them in border cities.

Without recourse to other pathways, migrants are funneled into an already inundated asylum system. As border security has increased, so have smugglers’ fees. Human trafficking has evolved into a multibillion-dollar international criminal network.

Meanwhile, the number of migrant deaths on the border escalates. In 2022, a record 800 migrants died, many of them in drownings. But instead of receiving compassion, the huddled masses are branded as “an invasion.” 

There is no short-term solution to the nation’s immigration challenges. Certainly, increasing guest worker visas and expediting asylum hearings would help. A comprehensive solution must include addressing “push factors” in the home countries. While people have a right to migrate, they also have a right to stay in their native land. Creating a hemispheric balance between those two rights will take years of thoughtful and patient policy work. 

In the meantime, Catholics and people of good will must stand in solidarity with migrants and help them adjust to their new life in the United States. In New York, for example, Catholic Charities has partnered with the mayor’s office to welcome the more than 104,000 migrants who have arrived since 2022. That includes migrants bused to the city by Republican governors seeking to score political points. 

Those efforts must, and undoubtedly will, continue. After all, the Catholic Church in the United States was built by and for immigrants. The Knights of Columbus was founded for and by Irish immigrants, and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, founded an order that initially served Italian immigrants in New York.

In the face of partisan attacks, the outreach of the church must continue unabated. “Let me be clear,” Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso said in response to accusations of human trafficking erroneously leveled against Annunciation House. “For the church’s part, we will endeavor to work with all in pursuit of the common good of our city and of our nation. We will not be intimidated in our work to serve Jesus Christ in our sisters and brothers fleeing danger and seeking to keep their families together.” 

Those who are attacking the church for its involvement in advocacy for immigrants often claim that the church should stay out of politics. But the reason the church has a political position on immigration is because of the Gospel mandate to “love one another as I have loved you.” No just law can stop solidarity at the arbitrary line of a border, nor can a just government require the church to condition the works of mercy on the immigration status of those in need. From the Texas border and beyond, from sea to shining sea, we must join together so that the Gospel may continue to be preached and put into practice in this land.

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