You may have heard that there is a caravan of migrants moving northward from Honduras through El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, headed for the southern-most border of the United States. Estimates of the caravan’s size range between 3,500 and 7,000 men, women, and children. We are told that many of the migrants are seeking asylum by the Mexican and/or American governments. All of them, no doubt, are seeking a better life than they currently experience in central America.
This reality has quickly become a political tool. The story is used by the political left to claim that America’s policies and attitudes on immigration are unjust. It is used by the right to claim that we need stricter immigration laws to prevent such situations, now and in the future. We even see the President of the United States deploying military troops and threatening retaliation for violence from the mob.
How are we, average American and Catholics, supposed to think about this situation? How should we react to the news that several thousand poor and downtrodden immigrants are moving toward our national border? How should we prepare to act if those migrants do, in fact, arrive at their destination? What does our Catholic faith teach us about this very real situation?
First of all, we need to think of this situation in a circumspect, measured way. We do not need to fall into the intellectual traps set for us by major news outlets like the Washington Post or Fox News. We need to realize that there are many facets to this story, and each outlet is going to present at least some small portion of the truth. We need to ask ourselves what that truth is in each and every case. We also probably should calm down and recognize that poor migrants probably don’t pose a grave threat to our geography or way of life, especially if our military is between us and them.
Next, we need to ask ourselves, quite simply, “What is this thing and what is it for?” In order to be able to make a judgment about anything, including a migrant caravan, we need to know its origins and its purpose. In this case, its origins are the crime- and poverty-ridden country of Honduras. Its purpose seems to be nothing other than escaping crime and poverty and finding a better life in northward regions. Again, this doesn’t seem to pose a grave threat to our national security or our American way of life. Yet, we should be aware and we should be prepared to begin taking some action.
How should we prepare to act? We have a great gift at our disposal for thinking about and dealing with situations like this migrant caravan. Catholic social thought provides us with the right way of viewing the world and approaching contemporary issues and events, including this one. Examining the migrant caravan through the lens of Catholic social thought should provide some helpful clarity.
The very first foundational principle of Catholic social thought is the dignity of every human person. According to our faith, every human person, regardless of their ethnicity and national origin, has an inviolable dignity. Because of that dignity, they are entitled to certain basic rights that meet the needs of their life, such as food, shelter, medical care, and basic security. So, these people from central America are certainly within their rights to seek asylum elsewhere if it is not provided in their home regions. And, Americans (you and I) have an obligation to receive them if they should arrive at our proverbial doorsteps.
Another important principle of Catholic social thought is the principle of solidarity. Our faith teaches us that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self’…”; and that each of us has a duty to make ourselves neighbors to those others, especially when they are disadvantaged (CCC 1931-1932). This disposition causes us to view every other human person as a brother or sister, regardless of “borders” of race, ethnicity, national origin, economic status, or gender. As a human person with inherent, inviolable dignity, my neighbor is more like me than not like me.
Solidarity, of course, is always balanced with subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that tells us that higher levels of community organization must not interfere with lower levels. This is particularly because people at those lower levels are more attune to all facets of the issue than larger entities. In the case of the caravan, families, parishes and dioceses, along with local municipal and state governments on the border should guide our thinking more so than politicians or journalists from north of the Ohio River.
With these three tenets of Catholic social teaching (and all of the other tenets, too), we can begin to see that we should be ready and willing to greet this migrant caravan, should it arrive at America’s southern border, in charity and in prudent justice. Remember, Jesus tells us that true blessedness, fulfilling the mission of the kingdom, involves welcoming the stranger when he or she has no place of refuge (cf. Mt. 25:35). Yet, we have a right to be secure in greeting those migrants.
This brings me to another important principle of Catholic morality. The civil authorities instituted by a people are in place to serve, protect, and foster that particular people. In this case, the governments of the United States and several border states have the obligation to serve, protect, and foster the common good of those, citizens, those states, and the union. These public authorities cannot simply suspend or overlook the common good of American citizens for the sake of taking care of migrants. Sometimes that means keeping more people out of our geographic expanse, at least for a short (or long) period of time. The government, then, should follow the will of the people as it develops while they examine the situation.
It seems to me that the Catholic bishops of border dioceses are taking the proper approach. (See article: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/border-dioceses-prepare-to-aid-migrants-heading-to-us-in-caravans-19676) They are not saying that migrants should automatically be admitted to the United States; and they are not advocating for an immediate path to citizenship. They are, however, saying that they are prepared to welcome any and all individuals who enter the United States, legally or illegally. They also expect that civil authorities will do their due diligence to admit or remove those individuals with due process of law, respecting their inviolable dignity at every moment. Most of all, they are prepared to extend the charity of the Gospel all along the way.
To help guide us through this perplexing situation, we should invoke the intercession of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), who fled from their own home region into Egypt for political reasons. We also can invoke the intercession of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Italian immigrant whose feast day we celebrate today (November 13). She became a U.S. citizen and spent the remainder of her life ministering to successive generations of immigrants. Perhaps we can welcome the migrants with the same prudent charity exhibited by St. Frances Xavier Cabrini more than a century ago.