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I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: A Catholic Response to the Border Crisis

I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me A Catholic Response to the Border Crisis HECTOR MATA AFP


Mark Gordon - published on 07/10/14

What to do about the 52,000 young people who have crossed our southern frontier?

As most Americans know by now, something extraordinary is happening on our border with Mexico. Some 52,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed illegally into the United States since the fiscal year began in October, which is twice the number apprehended in 2013 and three times the 2011 total. Most are from Central America – 11,400 from El Salvador, 12,700 from Guatemala, 15,000 from Honduras – with another 12,000 from Mexico. And that’s in addition to tens of thousands of other children accompanied by mothers and sometimes fathers.

According to immigrants themselves, they are fleeing to the United States to avoid violence inflicted by the deadly street gangs that have all but taken over El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Young people in those countries are routinely intimidated into joining the gangs, and those who resist recruitment are frequently killed or their families attacked. So they flee.

The United States isn’t the only country seeing an increase in these refugees. The relatively gang-free Central American nations of Panama, Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have also been struggling with the influx. Along with Mexico, these countries have reported a 432% increase in migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2009.

According to US law, unaccompanied minors can’t simply be turned around and immediately deported, which is what usually happens with adults. Instead, they are temporarily detained in a network of over 100 family shelters while the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notifies any relatives they may have here, or arranges for placement with foster families. They are then permitted to stay while their cases proceed through the legal system. Much the same treatment is accorded to mothers with minor children.

In this case, the Obama Administration’s hands are tied. The present system was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2008, both signed by President George W. Bush.

What is so remarkable about the current crisis is that the crush of immigrants is stretching resources and tempers to the breaking point in the American Southwest. According to HHS, their network of family shelters can accommodate about 6,000 people at any one time. With ten times that number of immigrants, those shelters have been overwhelmed, leading to cramped and unsanitary conditions. In response, the federal government has been using other facilities – schools, military installations, even prisons – as temporary shelters.

One such facility is located in Murietta, CA, an inland town about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. On July 1, local citizens carrying signs reading “Illegals Out” blocked roads and hurled insults as buses full of mothers and children attempted to make their way to the Border Patrol processing station in that city. Fearing for the safety of the immigrants, officials rerouted the buses to San Diego. Rumors spread that more buses would arrive on Friday, July 4. Pro- and anti-immigration activists converged on the town and though no buses arrived, clashes between the two groups resulted in the arrest of six persons.  

For their part, the Catholic bishops have called on the government and indeed all Americans to exercise compassion and patience for children and families in detention. That theme continued this week during the National Migration Conference, co-sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS), the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) and Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA).

Speaking prior to the opening of the conference, Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, said the Church’s position has not changed: “Our mission as Church is to defend the rights of the migrant, no matter what the political situation or polls may dictate.” Those comments align with what Bishop Elizondo said on June 4th, when he referred to the flood of unaccompanied minors as a “humanitarian” crisis, and called for a “comprehensive response” from the US government. “This is an issue which should not become politicized or give cause for negative rhetoric,” Bishop Elizondo said. “Young lives are at stake.”

In that same June 4 statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the USCCB, quoted the words of Pope Francis, who has said that immigrants, even ones who arrive illegally, “do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.”

 Archbishop Kurtz called on Congress to solve the immigration problem “in a manner that properly balances the protection of human rights with the rule of law.”

Bishops of dioceses closer to the border are also speaking out. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, which sits on the Rio Grande across from Matamoros, Mexico, said his job is to provide assistance to immigrants. “We can’t just turn away and say, ‘oh they shouldn’t be here,’” said Bishop Flores. “Well, they are and we have to deal with it and you have to deal with it as a human being and not just as a statistic or as a number or just as a problem because it’s a human phase we have to respond to.” The Diocese of Brownsville has offered food, clothing, and medical services to immigrants at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, as well as Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville.

On June 25, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, which shares a border with the teeming and violent Mexican city of Juarez, testified before Congress on the fate of child immigrants. In his testimony, Bishop Seitz cited a report he and others wrote late last year following an exploratory visit to Central America. The report, titled “The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States” authenticates the rationale many immigrants give for leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Specifically, the USCCB team found that:

  • “Violence and bad criminal actors have permeated all aspects of life in Central America and are one of the primary factors driving the migration of children from the region.”
  • “Youths who do manage to flee the violence are then exposed to extreme danger and criminal mistreatment by actors along the migration journey.”
  • “Violence and the lack of economic and educational opportunity have led to the family breakdown in poor families, leaving children unprotected.”
  • “Countries of origin lack the capacity to protect children adequately.”
  • “A significant number of migrants, particularly youth, have valid asylum claims.”

In his testimony, Bishop Seitz also made the following recommendations for congressional action, based on his team’s findings in the report they presented to the USCCB:

  • “Address the issue of unaccompanied child migration as a humanitarian crisis requiring cooperation from all branches of the US government and appropriate the necessary funding to respond to the crisis in a holistic and child protection-focused manner;”
  • “Adopt policies to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children receive appropriate child welfare services, legal assistance, and access to immigration protection where appropriate;”
  • “Require that a best interest of the child standard be applied in immigration proceedings governing unaccompanied alien children;”
  • “Examine root causes driving this forced migration situation, such as violence from non-state actors in countries of origin and a lack of citizen security and adequate child protection mechanisms;” and
  • “Seek and support innovative home country and transit country solutions that would enable children to remain and develop safely in their home country.”

Bishop Seitz also cited the USCCB’s Unaccompanied Alien Children Family Reunification program, also known as “Safe Passages,” which assists unaccompanied minors detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to link up with family members in the United States while their cases proceed.

Finally, Bishop Seitz drew on Catholic Social Teaching (CST), which is rooted in Scripture and especially the example of Jesus Christ. “The Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image,” said Bishop Seitz. “In the Old Testament, God calls upon his people to care for the alien because of their own alien experience: ‘So, you, too, must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt’ (Deut. 10:17-19). In the New Testament, the image of the migrant is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his own life and work, Jesus identified himself with newcomers and with other marginalized persons in a special way: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ (Mt. 25:35). Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher without a home of his own, and … he was a child migrant fleeing to Egypt to avoid violence, persecution, and death. (Mt. 2:15).”

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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