In Defense of the Human Rights of Emigration and Asylum

When the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed ashore near a Turkish resort, the world was horrified.  The image sparked a debate worldwide about countries’ immigration policies and led to a swelling demand to accept Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War.  The sentiment is clear: Alan should have been allowed to go somewhere safe, in a safe vessel – not in the vain hope of reaching Greece and, eventually, Canada, in a flimsy, inflatable raft that capsized five minutes after leaving shore.

Alan’s body reflected the gruesome reality of the global refugee crisis.  The number of displaced persons is at the highest level ever recorded by the United Nations, a staggering 59.5 million as of June 2015. To cope with the growing number of families fleeing to Europe, the international community has called for a reform in asylum practices.  Pope Francis called on European families to accept Syrian refugees into their homes.  His words, consistent with his pastoral approach of acceptance and kindness, were a loving implementation of a longstanding social and pastoral tradition of the Church.

In Exsul Familia Nazarethana, Pope Venerable Pius XII reminded the world that the Holy Family is the “archetype of every refugee family,” seeking asylum from a violent and despotic dictator. St. John XXIII wrote that every human being must be permitted to emigrate and reside in other countries.  “The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State,” he wrote, “does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men and women,” (Pacem in Terris).

The secular world has embraced this shared ethic – the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights dedicates three articles to this principle: the right to emigrate (Article 13), the right to seek asylum (Article 14), and the right to a nationality (Article 15).  In decades and centuries past, United States immigration policy reflected recognition of these Creator-endowed human rights.  Over time, however, our laws and ethical discourses have lost sight of this moral principle.

Like Alan Kurdi and his family, my great-grandparents fled a Syrian Civil War.  Unlike many refugees today, my great-grandparents were given hope for their future by US immigration policy.  Syrian Catholics were targeted for genocide, and they fled in droves.  Some resettled in present-day Lebanon, which was created after the war.  Others, like my great-grandparents, boarded a ship and sailed for the United States; they landed on Ellis Island, their name (Eardahi) was Americanized (Eardley), and they settled on the coast of Virginia, where my grandmother and her siblings were born and raised.

It was a golden age for the United States.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the Statue of Liberty greeted them.  And thus was the foundation of our country, of the people we pass on the street, the ones in our offices and schools and churches.

Much of what makes America great is that we are all descended from heroes.  Speak to almost any American, especially an American Catholic, and there is a good chance he or she is only two or three generations removed from brave souls who struck out across the ocean, facing cold, sickness, or death, seeking a land of freedom and opportunity.  Descendants of slaves inherit the courage and honor and hope of their ancestors who accomplished the promethean task of bringing about a more just society against a tidal wave of oppression and opposition within their own country.

If our heroic heritage is our greatness, our weakness is a nervous nativism that fears the dreams of the present wave of immigrants and refugees. Closing our borders, limiting immigration to a pinhole against the ocean, will lead to cultural stagnation in the United States.  But more than that, it will lead (and has led) to moral stagnation in our culture.  We are the country of the future, but we have forgotten our roots.  We are too far from the memories of our own relatives’ experiences of genocide, civil war, terror, starvation, and torture.  We have become forgetful, and it is disintegrating our empathy and widening our rift – in a world of total connectivity, we are losing our capacity for true connectedness.

We have forgotten what it is like to have our fundamental human right to security or speech or worship denied – we have forgotten that to have any fundamental human right violated is also to have the right to life infringed upon – for what is life without the freedom to worship God freely, to know the truth unaltered, to speak wisdom publicly?  What is human dignity if you or your children can disappear without a trace because you have made a powerful enemy?  How can it ever be justified for the oppressed to have to risk their lives simply to seek a place where their basic human rights will be respected?  And surely it is the call of the nations to willingly provide asylum, rather than create an impossible cyclic bureaucracy that frustrates the freedoms of others through inaction and inefficiency?

The death of Alan Kurdi has brought the inadequacy of international migration laws to the forefront. Several organizations and publications, including this one, have called for their home countries to more willingly accept Syrian refugees.  Pope Francis himself has entreated the European nations to accept war refugees from the Middle East.

But I would like to remind you of another lost child: the nameless child, the child in the desert far from resort cities with photographers and journalists.  Each year, between 300 and 500 migrants die trying to cross into the United States; this number does not account for deaths between Central America and the northern border of Mexico.  There is no official count of children lost, but the surge of undocumented minors in 2014 captured headlines.   The children who survived were sent to cramped detention centers, sleeping in cots or on gym floors, until they were sent back to their native countries.

Many of these people were also fleeing violence.  They are fleeing the violence of extreme poverty, gang violence, and militarized police forces, whose militarization was often financed by powerful corporate leaders.   They are fleeing food insecurity created, in part, by the United States’ considerable market influence on global corn prices and subsequent irresponsible use of those resources as fuel for our cars, jets, and factories; the expansion of ethanol access and the accompanying policies, subsidies, and futures speculation contributed to a remarkable surge in food prices, which has negatively impacted the most vulnerable populations in Central and South America.   Another immensely important factor behind this migration is the gang-related violence fueled by the drug trade, an industry financed largely by citizens of the United States. Many of these migrants are fleeing possible kidnapping, trafficking, extortion, and murder.

The refugee crisis is not new for the United States.  But it is difficult to accept that these immigrants trying to cross into our country are truly refugees, perhaps because accepting this means recognizing that we are, in part, responsible for that violence.  It is much easier to rely on ugly stereotypes about folks south of our border—that there is just something about them that makes it impossible for them to get their act together.  They can’t seem to avoid corruption.  Poverty and violence must be the product of their own irresponsible actions.

But US foreign policy in Central America has been deeply flawed for decades. During the Cold War, Blessed Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, and six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America were murdered by men trained in the US School of the Americas, run by the US Army. In recent years, the US has offered financial support and training for militarized law enforcement while at the same time  voicing concerns about human rights abuses by militarized police.  The question of whether to use the military to maintain the peace is a complex and delicate one, especially in countries in Central America riddled by gang and drug-related violence.  But if history serves as a guide to the present, the answer is clear: the United States should tread very lightly before endorsing this type of militarization.  The Truth Commission on El Salvador, sponsored by the US Institute of Peace, highlights the need to learn from past mistakes.

Beyond physical violence, the violence of poverty is perpetuated by US-based businesses that are not held accountable for violations of workers’ rights laws once their factories are built on foreign soil.  Exploitation of workers and monopolization of developing economies continue to undermine economic innovation and the dignity of the worker.

What is essential is to realize that we are bound up in a Eucharistic fabric of a global society; our acts of injustice affect all, just as our acts of love affect all. Our contribution to the human experience of suffering carries a moral imperative to alleviate that suffering – or rather to transform it through works of love.

We must guard against sentimentality.  Rather, we should seek wisdom and empathy.  We must remember that even the hypocrite is inscribed with a sense of natural law that would recoil at the tragedy of Alan Kurdi’s death.  It is easy to agree that European countries should indeed accept more refugees, while hundreds die every year knocking on our own doors.  It takes moral courage to accept that we are an imperfect country, and a very powerful one, and the injustice in our practices have real, broad-reaching, and tragic consequences.  It takes wisdom and courage to search our own actions and policies and see if they have contributed to the displacement and death of children and other innocents, including those who felt that their only two options were liberty or death.

Yet if we accept our imperfections, let us also accept who we strive to be: a nation of strength, resilience, and hope that defends human dignity and protects the most vulnerable from exploitation.  Our government and economy provide safety and hope for its citizens, and we have a long and rich history of providing a home for those fleeing violence, hunger, or poverty.  Regardless of whether the United States is complicit in the pressures pushing our neighbors northward or westward, our nation must remember that its strength has always laid in the courage and hope of those seeking a better life.  We are most proud when we remember the times when our nation has fought for and defended human rights.

Like all nations and peoples, we have two historical narratives.  Now, in this critical moment in our world’s history, we must decide which narrative to carry forward.  We must decide what kind of nation we desire to be.  Whose voices will be included in our world?  Whose hopes or fears will shape our future?

It is time to return to our national roots.  It is time to widen the path for legal immigration, especially for refugees. This, paired with securing the border, would return to our national ideals without compromising national security. Our nation should extend short-term asylum and a long-term path to citizenship to most or all refugees who have fled violence, famine, or war, and our nation should be prepared to welcome them. Consider that issue in the presidential election – there are candidates in both parties who champion that cause. Catholics and other who believe in human rights can write to our Congressional representatives to to show our support for welcoming more refugees.   The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Social Services have partnered with the federal Refugee Resettlement Program to find family placements for unaccompanied minors.  Schools are in dire need of educators qualified to teach English language learners.  Health and mental health professionals should work with refugees during their adjustment to the US.  Parishes should offer Mass and prayers in the language of the local migrant population and should identify leaders within the community to engage them with the parish. To learn more about how to assist your diocese in welcoming immigrants and refugees, Catholics can contact their diocesan social ministry director.

“Find your own Calcutta,” Mother Teresa said to those who wanted to join her in her work.  “Do not go seeking God in far off lands – He is not there.  He is here.  He is already with you.”  It is not necessary to fly across the world assist in those suffering this crisis; they are already here.  They are already asking for a place where their human rights will be protected.  Look to our own government, and our own policies, the innocents dying at our own doors, and look to bring to the strangers in our own midst God’s justice and love.

Meghan Goodwin teaches Moral Theology, Sacramental Theology, and Peace Studies at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic college preparatory school that enrolls highly motivated low-income students from around the DC area.  She attended the University of Virginia for undergraduate and graduate school, earning her B.A. in Religious Studies and her M.A. in Theology, Ethics, and Culture.