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Bridging the Divide over Immigraton

By Paula Minaert

published in Woodstock Report No. 89, Fall 2007

Migration Kerwin 2007Don Kerwin, Co-Director of Woodstock's Theology of Migration Project

Even when he was very young, Alex Arevalo could tell the difference between the sound of an M16 and that of an AK-47. Those were the weapons used by the opposing sides in El Salvador’s civil war. He was born in 1974 and grew up with that war. That war helped propel him to the United States— alone and undocumented—when he was fourteen years old. “If I had stayed, I would have been taken either by the left or the right,” he says now. He gained legal status through a humanitarian relief provision in immigration law. Today, with a degree in psychology, he works with Catholic Charities in Connecticut, helping other immigrants.

Mirna Torres’s father worked as a roustabout in the oil fields of West Texas for ten years, while his family stayed behind in Mexico. He had no schooling; his parents had abandoned him as a child, so that was the only way he could support them.Working as a day laborer in Mexico, the only job he could get, he earned a dollar a day. He made twice that in Texas. He saw his family only a few times a year. Finally, they all joined him. It was the only way her parents could see to get a better future for their children. Ms. Torres went on to get a law degree and now directs Legalization and Advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), an immigrant group in Washington, DC.

Stories like these are repeated many times over in the lives of the millions of other people who have come to this country in recent years. But they also have led to a contentious, sometimes even bitter, debate in the United States. Some native-born U.S. citizens look at immigrants and see only problems, problems linked with their concerns about job loss, crime, border control, and national security. “They’re breaking the law by coming here.We struggle, too, and it seems they’re taking jobs away from us. I don’t think they’ll fit in here. Many of them don’t learn English.”

This debate has also touched—and divided—Catholics in this country. Catholics are voicing the same concerns about immigrants as other Americans, and many of them have reacted with incomprehension and anger to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope campaign to reform our immigration laws.

“A Reflection on Migration,” a conference held July 19-20 at Fairfield University in Connecticut, was an initiative to respond to these kinds of concerns among Catholics. Cosponsored by Woodstock, CLINIC, and Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life, it was moderated by Rev. Rick Ryscavage, S.J., the center’s director. The conference brought together academics, migrant service providers, theologians, and church leaders to explore issues of migration from a Catholic perspective. It touched on many things, but focused on the root causes of migration, the spirituality of migrants, and the role of national sovereignty and human rights in the immigration debate. The purpose of the gathering was to guide and inform Woodstock’s theological reflection and a new project on migration that is co-chaired by Rev. Gasper LoBiondo, S.J., of Woodstock and Donald Kerwin of CLINIC.


Globalization emerged as a major topic at the conference. Different speakers pointed to it, describing it variously as a cause of migration, a force that facilitates migration, and a tool to ease the problems of migration.

Mary DeLorey of Catholic Relief Services said that globalization has accelerated migration by feeding the major inequalities that exist between, and within, nations. The income ratio of the world’s richest countries and the poorest ones now stands at 100 to 1. The new paradigm of globalization has resulted in major instability in some parts of the world and has been characterized by a harsh climate for local business, fewer jobs, and reduced social spending. Demographic factors play a role as well—some industrialized countries, especially in Europe and the United States, have aging populations and not enough workers and this draws a large number of migrants from countries with many people and not enough jobs or capital.

It would be easy to assume, in looking at globalization, that povertyin the sending countries is the only force leading to migration. But this would be a mistake, Ms. DeLorey said. Poverty is indeed a push factor, something that pushes people out of their home countries. But globalization also causes pull factors, such as labor demand in the countries that receive migrants. Finally, she cautioned that we must remember that migrants are not only economic units and that other forces contribute to migration. In some countries, for example, migration has been going on for so long it is almost normative, creating a culture of migration.

The Most Rev. Jaime Soto, Auxiliary Bishop of Orange, California, spoke of the impact of globalization on migration in Latin America. He linked globalization to what he called the social, political, religious, and cultural ambiguity that characterizes the continent today.What does this mean in concrete terms? It means that sophisticated extra-national criminal networks have gained a great deal of power, and crime is pervasive. It means that governments cannot ensure the security of their citizens. It means that many people feel that decisions affecting them are being made by outside institutions. It means that electricity has reached into the most remote areas of the continent, bringing with it things like television—and the global culture. Under its influence, local cultures are collapsing. All these things feed into migration. Interestingly, Bishop Soto pointed out, citizens of the United States have these same concerns: they also worry about crime and the effects of globalization.

Many people, in looking at both globalization and migration, see—and sometimes worry about—the clash of cultures. Bishop Soto, however, referred to something else, something called mestizaje: the mixing of cultures. It has long been a familiar phenomenon in Latin America, where it was a powerful evangelizing force in its history. “Today, how can mestizaje serve the human person and the Gospel?” he asked.

Spirituality of Migrants

Migration 2007Elzbieta Gozdziak, director of Research at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) at Georgetown University

What effect does the migrant experience have on people? How does it affect their faith? This is a relatively new area of research. Elzbieta Go dziak, research director at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, focused on religion and spirituality as a coping mechanism for forced migrants. The refugee experience, she pointed out, truly shatters people’s worlds. It forces people to confront questions about the meaning of life and the nature of good and evil. It is a true spiritual crisis. Yet the organizations responding to refugee needs have a secular humanist base and typically have adopted what she called a biomedical model. Refugees’ experiences are medicalized and seen as mental health emergencies. Great political and social misery is narrowed to psychological trauma, with a tendency to see refugees merely as victims.

“This ignores the role of religion in coping with catastrophe,” Dr. Go dziak said, pointing out that it was not that long ago that religion itself was regarded as a pathology by the mental health profession. Such an approach does not see the refugee holistically, as a person who has demonstrated enormous resilience in surviving the experience. The most essential need for those who help refugees, she added, is to be aware of the whole range of what it means to be a refugee—politically, legally, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Near Neighbors and Far Neighbors

People who live in the towns and states that receive migrants have questions as well. How should we see migrants? How should we react to them? What does Catholic social teaching tell us? The Rev. Bill O’Neill, S.J., professor of ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, reflected on these questions in the context of Catholic social teaching.

He began by quoting from the play “A Man for All Seasons”, in which Cardinal Wolsey speaks disparagingly about Thomas More’s “moral squint”—a lamentable (to Wolsey) tendency to see things through a moral lens. Fr. O’Neill explained that Catholic social teaching is the moral squint the Church brings to bear on public policy.What does this mean for immigration? The Church affirms the dignity and worth of every person. States have a responsibility to respect the human rights of its people—and when it doesn’t, people have the right to emigrate to find a new home that does.

Catholic teaching, Fr. O’Neill said, thus calls us to recognize every person as a neighbor. The distinction is not between member and stranger; there is only near neighbor and far neighbor.

Sovereignty and Human Rights: Do They Conflict?

People have the right to emigrate—but what about the right of countries to control their borders? These are core questions in the migration debate. The Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, addressed them. “There is often a tension between the legitimate rights of migrants and the concerns of the receiving country,” he began. “We need to situate this argument within Catholic teaching.”

After the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, the United Nations defined national sovereignty in terms of responsibility to one’s people, moving away from a definition based on immunity and an ability to keep people out. This touches on how we deal with refugees and fits in with Catholic thought, which sees all people as one family, created in God’s image. It also brings up the need to balance different responsibilities. “We have a special responsibility to our own family and to our fellow citizens,” Fr. Hollenbach said, “but it doesn’t mean that other people outside those groups don’t count.We have a wider responsibility to everyone in God’s family—but it doesn’t undermine our special responsibilities.We have to deal with this.”

Fr. Hollenbach ended with a list of migration shalts and shalt nots. Among them:

  • Thou shalt not create situations that force people to flee their homes, such as war.
  • Thou shalt not take economic actions that make people so desperate they have to leave their homes.
  • Thou shalt not discriminate against non-citizens—in other words, don’t use guest workers as cheap labor.
  • If you bring in guest workers, thou shalt enable them to become citizens.
  • Thou shalt help in cases of extreme poverty if possible, so people won’t have to migrate; provide development assistance.

Division Among Catholics

Donald Kerwin, Executive Director of CLINIC, talked about the divide among Catholics in the pews over migration. Playing what he called the devil’s advocate, he laid out the position of faithful Catholics who love the Church but who do not agree with the Bishops’ stance.

For example, he said, they might ask, aren’t the rights of low-income workers in this country violated if they lose jobs to migrants? And when people who break the law by entering the country illegally are put on the path to citizenship, doesn’t that attack our national sovereignty, something we desperately need in this age of terrorism? How does doing this promote the common good?

“At gatherings like this, we tend to agree with each other,” he said. “But if we are going to communicate Catholic teaching about migration, we need to realize where our ‘opponents’— who are also our brothers and sisters—are coming from.”

Integrating Immigrants

Many Americans worry whether the new immigrants will integrate into our culture. But the United States actually has a better chance of successfully integrating immigrants than the European Union does. Lauren Gilbert, associate law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law in Florida, made this claim. She attributed this to the resilience of our melting pot model of integration: newcomers and citizens gradually become more similar in a process marked by acceptance and intermarriage. Our liberal naturalization process—which has sometimes been criticized—also contributes to successful integration. “The pathway to integration is really citizenship,” she said.

Maria Vidal de Haymes teaches at the Loyola University School of Social Work in Chicago. She observed that receiving communities—including churches and community organizations—play crucial key roles in integration. Some key strategies that facilitate integration are: English language acquisition; early childhood education that includes parents and English language instruction; work and work support, especially ones that help low-skilled workers and that tie English language instruction to industry; ensuring that immigrants can access public services and opportunities; and programs for highly skilled immigrants to help them transfer credentials and practice here.

The Big Picture

John Bingham of the International Catholic Migration Commission in Geneva described the overall situation of migrants in the world today and the gaps that exist among governments and private organizations in how they are being protected and integrated.

There are twenty-five million displaced and stateless people worldwide, and the response to them has tended to be mostly hodgepodge and done on an emergency basis.

Some migrants are particularly vulnerable, such as those who are trafficked or in danger while in transit, and there is no consistent international response to their needs.

Labor migration—and most of the world’s international migrants are needed for work because of demographic changes—suffers because there is no organized international system to facilitate it.

There's a gap in linking migration and development, because of a reluctance to explore the root causes of migration and migrants' rights.

The Church,Mr. Bingham said, can play a role in filling these gaps. It is the world's first globalized institution and is thus uniquely positioned to offer leadership in the area of international migration.

“The keys are Catholic social teaching and action, especially in the common good and the value of family.We believe this stuff.We pray it. It's not just Matthew 25. It's the psalms and all of the Old Testament.We stand on holy ground and hear: go talk to your leaders. God says, I'm concerned about you and the way you are treated. I've decided to lift you out of your misery. The Lord remembers his covenant forever.”