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. Read More


A Very Catholic Week: The March for Life, Selma, and Immigration Reform

There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.

First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.

Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.

Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:

1) God takes sides; we should, too.

I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”

This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.

2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.

I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”

I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”

If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.

3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.

In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.

After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Hundreds Feared Dead After Sinking of Ship near Malta

Awful news off the coast of Malta:

Hundreds of migrants may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in recent days, bringing the number of victims so far this year to more than four times last year’s total, the International Organization of Migration said Monday.

About 500 people, mainly from Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Sudan, are feared dead after their vessel was allegedly sunk by human traffickers off Malta’s coast last week. Another 200 may have drowned off the coast of Libya over the weekend, an IOM spokesman said.

The vessel off Malta appeared to have been rammed by human traffickers after the passengers refused to board another ship that was considered not seaworthy, the IOM spokesman said. Details weren’t yet clear, the spokesman added.

Pope Francis has done a great service by bringing this issue into the limelight. More must be done to avert these humanitarian catastrophes.


Crisis at the Border: A Personal Story and Practical Solutions

This month, as I have been hearing of the thousands of children fleeing Central America, the story of one mother and her murdered son keeps coming to my mind. About ten years ago, when I worked as an immigration paralegal while serving as a Jesuit Volunteer in Los Angeles, I met with a Salvadoran woman—I’ll call her María—whose son had just been killed in El Salvador. I wasn’t able to help her, but I promised that I would tell her story when I could.

Around 1985, Maria, a new mother, fled the civil war raging in her country. She fled carrying her baby Isaac with her and, after a treacherous journey, she reached Los Angeles. She had no choice but to live in the shadows, finding whatever work she could. She couldn’t apply for asylum because she knew that at that time, the US government was systematically rejecting the asylum claims of Salvadorans and Guatemalans (while routinely granting the asylum claims of Cubans and Nicaraguans for ideological reasons). At the time, our government supported the Salvadoran and Guatemalan regimes, while opposing the Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes. This prevented people like Maria from getting a fair day in court. Over the course of the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, about 75,000 Salvadorans, mostly civilians, were killed by their government, and about 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly civilian indigenous Mayans, were killed or disappeared by their government. In Guatemala, the military admitted to razing 500 villages, purposely burning fields to cause widespread starvation. In El Salvador, a generation grew up finding tortured bodies of men, women, and children killed by the death squads on the streets each morning.

So, like countless Central American mothers, she survived in the undocumented world. She worked several jobs at a time, hoping to make a better life for herself and, most importantly, her children. Although she was able to bring in enough money to keep a roof over her family’s head and put food on the table, she didn’t have the capacity to protect them. When these child refugees were alone in their neighborhoods after school, the African-American and Chicano gangs started to attack the Central American kids. So the Central American kids began to band together to protect themselves, and quite soon, these groups morphed into more violent gangs that in turn preyed on their neighbors– the most well-known being the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and 18th Street gangs.

During this time, religious organizations were stepping up to demand that refugees not be deported to their deaths. In 1991, this resulted in the American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh settlement, which gave Salvadorans and Guatemalans a real chance for their asylum claims to be heard. Maria was able to get a work permit and start emerging from the shadows. However, the process was so slow that claims didn’t start being seriously adjudicated until around 2000, through another law, the Nicaraguan and Central American Adjustment Act (NACARA).        But before NACARA could have its intended effect of providing legal status to the Central Americans who fled their governments, white supremacist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Taking advantage of this national tragedy, Congress slipped in draconian changes to the immigration system that had very little to do with the real threats of domestic terrorism. It stripped away most of the discretion judges had to decide whether a person deserved to stay in the United States and made a whole class of non-serious crimes for which probation and fines were the normal punishment into automatically deportable defenses.

Concretely, this meant that the same crime had a radically different punishment depending on if you were a citizen or not. A US citizen would be monitored by the criminal justice system for a little while. For the exact same crime, a non-citizen would be deported. Imagine two brothers, the older one who fled on his mom’s back as a baby, and the younger, born a year after she arrived in Los Angeles. Both are convicted of joyriding together. The younger kid might do a few months in jail, get a slap on the wrist, complete probation, and get on with his life. The older kid who fled on his mom’s back before he had any memories of El Salvador would be sent back to a country of which he had no knowledge. Quite possibly, all his relatives would be dead or gone, and he might not be able to speak Spanish. Very often, kids with no gang involvement whatsoever found themselves in San Salvador without the slightest clue as to how to survive. Many connected with the gangs because, again, the gangs gave them protection in their new environment. Now, gangs started to spread throughout Central America and Mexico as deportees started their own gang outposts, still centrally managed by gang leadership in Los Angeles. But unlike in the United States, law enforcement in Central America is essentially non-existent. While gangs in the US make life horrible for countless neighborhoods, they do not compete against the government for power and control. In Central America, they do.

While the NACARA application for her and Isaac was pending, and the gangs were spreading throughout the continent, Maria continued raising her son in a rough part of LA. He was friendly with the neighborhood boys who had joined a gang, but he never got involved. Isaac, 17 at the time, did something stupid—I forget the details, but it was something like simple theft or joyriding—and ended up in jail. While serving his sentence, he took advantage of the available programs and completed his GED. The facility allowed a graduation ceremony, complete with a rented satin blue cap and gown.

While a US citizen would have been released after those few months, as an immigrant, this conviction meant nearly automatic deportation. He was transferred to an immigration prison and was housed with members of the same gang that controlled his neighborhood. Representing himself without the assistance of a lawyer, like the majority of immigrants in detention, he pled with the judge for his life, telling him that he would certainly be killed if he were returned to El Salvador. The judge told him that he didn’t believe him, that he wasn’t credible. He was deported. When he landed in the airport, he made his way to his grandmother’s place–to family who were, more than anything, strangers to him. Members from a local gang were informed by their California contacts that Isaac was associated with a rival gang. Less than two days after arriving, he was fatally shot.

A few months before Isaac was deported and killed, Maria had finally received her permanent residency, her green card. This meant that for the first time in nearly 20 years, she could finally travel to El Salvador. So she traveled to the country she had fled in order to bury the son she had carried on her back so many years ago. She brought photos of her son along with his immigration papers, including the transcript of his deportation hearing. When returning to the US through Texas, because of these papers, she was detained for three days by immigration officials before finally being released.

As an American citizen who believes strongly in our Constitution and rule of law, I have never felt more powerless than I felt listening to her. She wanted to hold the government accountable for refusing to listen to the pleas of her son. I could offer her nothing. I sat in silence and grief with her as we looked at a picture of her son celebrating his GED, and then the pictures of this young man in his casket.

We can do better now. We can listen to the children fleeing for their lives, who are terrified by the prospect of returning. We can believe their accounts of the dangers they face in their home countries. The policy changes under consideration by President Obama and many Republicans and Democrats in Congress seek to fix the problem of this influx by limiting access to the courts and, in one proposal, allowing Customs and Border Patrol Agents to screen Central American children for possible refugee status. Imagine if you are a 10-year old Salvadoran girl who has been raped by the police in her country; are you going to immediately reveal your trauma to a police officer, or will you be too scared to show that you may have a claim for relief? If our country makes changes like this, we will be returning to the dark strategies of the 1980s, when we deported Central Americans not by giving them their day in court, but by refusing to hear them out.

To fix the immediate problem in a way that is consistent with our values of equal protection under the law, the government should do three things. First, it should significantly increase the number of immigration judges. Right now, 250 immigration judges each have an average of more than 10,000 cases. Increasing the number of judges will give them the time they need to consider all their cases, and processing time will be cut down by years.

Second, all children should have access to a lawyer. The current process is that an unrepresented child, sometimes as young as four, is called up to the judge, who tries to explain the law to the child, listens to the child, and then, in consultation with the government attorney, tries to decide what to do. On July 15, TRAC Immigration published a report analyzing data on unaccompanied children in immigration court, underscoring the need for representation. These statistics show that many children, for lack of an attorney who can tell their story, are being denied relief to which they may be entitled:

  • In almost half (47%) of the cases in which the child was represented, the court allowed the child to remain in the United States. The child was ordered removed in slightly more than one in four (28%) of these cases. And in the remaining quarter (26%) the judge entered a “voluntary departure” (VD) order.
  • Where the child appeared alone without representation, nine out of ten children were ordered deported — 77 percent through the entry of a removal order, and 13 percent with a VD order. One in ten (10%) were allowed to remain in the country.

Third, for Guatemalan children, many of whom seem to be coming from indigenous Mayan regions of the country, competent indigenous interpreters and legal assistants need to be available. Many of these children have a basic understanding of market Spanish, but cannot articulate the basis of their need for protection in Spanish. They need to have Mam, Quiché, Ixil, and other interpreters.

Ultimately, the answer to the new refugee crisis on the border is to support efforts for peace in these countries. But in the meantime, we need not further destroy our Constitutional principle of due process under the law.

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent revolt of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)


Crisis on the Border: The Global Refugee Crisis Comes to America

El Salvador. Honduras. Guatemala. Three countries in Central America with increasing, rampant gang violence and homicide.

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These are also the 3 countries from which the greatest influx of unaccompanied minors are crossing the border, fleeing to the United States. If we look at the graph, it is clear that the increase of unaccompanied children crossing are not coming from Mexico, but through Mexico to the United States. These children and those who are traveling with their mothers are fleeing from horrific violence and insecurity. I want to be clear from the very beginning of this post – these children are refugees.

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So why is it that every time I turn on the television I hear elected officials pontificating about border security? Listening to the litany of Republican congressman, Tea Party activists, and pundits like Governor Palin I have seen interviewed over the past 4 days, it is as if the primary crisis on the border is one of security – all these children are getting across the border. As much of the nation was ensconced in celebrating “independence,” protesters blocked a bus transporting unaccompanied minors. I am horrified,  disgusted, and ashamed of my fellow citizens.

The humanitarian crisis at the border is not a political problem. It is not even an immigration problem. It is merely the latest instance of a global refugee crisis. These children are fleeing for their lives, they are refugees and we need to readjust our national discourse accordingly. currently, the global refugee crisis is at an all time high – 9 million children globally.

refugees_dayNow at this point I could point out that, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration…” (article3)

But the United States will shortly find itself as the only member state in the United Nations to sign but fail to ratify the document (South Sudan has begun the process and Somalia has stated an intent to re-commit). However, there are plenty of Conventions on Human Rights, Refugees, and so on to which we have committed ourselves and which demand that the treatment of refugees prioritize unequivocally the safety and well being of the children (not political concerns).

Within this national context, the voice of the Catholic Church has been steadfast – the dignity of these children is the primary concern.  Both the USCCB and Catholic NGOs like Network have spoken out against calls for increased border security and deportation. While some Texas towns are attempting to create city ordinances to keep undocumented children out, Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas has transformed itself into a safe haven for women and children stating “This is not about politics, it’s about kids.”

For Catholic moral theology, it is quite simple. These children fleeing across our border are in the image of another child who was forced to flee political violence – the Infant Jesus.  Shortly after his birth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee across the border into Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth was a child refugee. Jesus Christ is a child refugee.

On Monday, I returned from a Vincentian pilgrimage. In 17century France, plagued by poverty and generations of constant war, children called “foundlings” were abandoned by mothers who could not afford to feed them.  One of the earliest missions of St. Vincent de Paul was to organize homes for foundling children staffed by the Daughters of Charity and funded by the Ladies of Charity. An unpopular cause, no one wanted to bother with the foundlings – if even their mothers do not care for them, why should we?  In response, St. Vincent created foundling homes named for the Infant Jesus reminding everyone that these children were the Infant Jesus in their midst. Jesus Christ is alone, afraid, and in need of care.  When a group of  ladies questioned continuing to pay for the foundlings – it was expensive, how long were they expected to pay? St. Vincent listened to their concerns and responded pointedly – a child can die two ways; through murder or by refusing to feed him. 

Like Moses’ mother Jochebed, mothers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala feel they have no choice then to send their children down the Nile and pray for their safety. The fate of thousands of refugee children in our community are at stake – American Christians need to lift up our voices and like Sacred Heart parish change the conversation.  As Christians and as Americans the choice is clear – to live up to our ideals and welcome the oppressed yearning to break free  or betray the very core of our community and return children to a situation of immense suffering and danger and possibly death.  It is their lives at stake and it is our soul.


“Let the Children Come to Me” vs. Nativism

American soccer fans couldn’t help but cringe when the US Men’s National Soccer Team was defeated by Belgium last week and was sent back home from Brazil. A part of me was secretly hoping that this would be a historic World Cup in which the US would go farther than it ever had before in a World Cup, maybe even winning the championship.

And yet this was not the only important skirmish our country was facing on that Tuesday. Another skirmish was taking place in the small town of Murrieta, outside of San Diego, foreshadowing a looming social war in our country that will determine not just our country’s immediate future in regards to immigration, but more importantly whether we will continue to uphold the traditional American values that have meant so much to our country’s history.

On this day, hundreds of protesters met in Murrieta to stop a bus load of immigrant children who were coming from Texas in order to get processed in a facility in California. The White House estimates that upwards of 90,000 immigrant children, mostly traveling alone, will enter our country without proper documentation before the end of the year. Chanting “No more illegals” and expressing the fears that “They will take our jobs,” these protesters—many of whom were Tea Partiers and minutemen—made children (some as young as 4) feel like criminals for doing something that their parents hoped would give them escape the dreadful violence that threatened them in their home countries.

Now that we have just celebrated the national independence of our country, it seems like a good time to reflect on this skirmish and the choice it presents for our country. For we can choose to uphold the traditional Christian value of compassion and generosity that our country has upheld at its best moments, or we can choose to opt for the values of fear and nativism displayed in the darkest periods of our nation’s history.

We can either welcome these children with open arms or we can reject them by deporting them and condemning them to inevitable suffering and possibly death.

I humbly contend that the rejection espoused by the anti-immigrant protesters at Murrieta is both un-American and utterly un-Christian.

When one reads over the stories of our American heroes in World War II, the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to confront the evil of segregation, or countless other stories of American heroism, it becomes clear that compassion and care for those most in need is as American as apple pie. It is America at its finest.

Jesus himself, whom many of the protesters claim as their Lord and Savior and spend Sundays praising and worshiping, is pretty clear about how children should be treated. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these.” In rejecting these children, protesters and any who are like-minded are failing to see that their faith is intertwined with compassion for those most in need, including migrants. There can be no compassion in this rejection, and it is quite honestly embarrassing to see Christians embracing this type of nativism.

On top of being both un-American and un-Christian, this type of nativist rhetoric also denies our country’s rich immigrant history. In rejecting immigrants today we reject the legacy of our immigrant forefathers and ignore the true causes of our country’s greatness. Our nation’s diversity has long been a source of strength and has helped the United States to serve as a symbol of hope.

I pray that just as we saw fireworks filling our skies on the fourth of July and took pride once more in how far we have come as a country, our hearts might also expand to take into consideration the lives of the thousands of immigrant children who wait anxiously with tired eyes and backpacks full of dreams for the day when the beacon held by lady liberty will shine brightly once again. For these children, willing to walk hundreds of miles and encounter countless obstacles, still believe in the best of what the United States can be. But it remains to be seen whether we will choose to espouse the ideals of opportunity and care or whether we will succumb to the voices in the shadows pushing us into the dark crevices of fear.

Carlos Rodriguez is a devout Catholic in his mid-twenties trying to make sense of his faith and his desire for more justice, especially for urban communities around the world.


Christopher Hale in Time: Cardinals Prove Borders Cannot Block the Love of Jesus Christ

Millennial co-founder and contributing editor Christopher Hale has a new article in Time on yesterday’s #BorderMass. He writes:

During Holy Communion, O’Malley, his brother bishops and priests reached across the border fence to distribute hosts to Mexicans on the other side. The message communicated here was unmistakable. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith. We believe that God’s full reality in Jesus Christ is made manifest in it. So in this profound act, the bishops reminded us that in Jesus Christ, there are no borders.

The full article can be read here.