Migrants are not seen as entitled like others to participate in the life of society, and it is forgotten that they possess the same intrinsic dignity as any person. Hence they ought to be “agents in their own redemption”. No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.
— Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti 39
It’s happening again, this time during a continuing global pandemic. A surge of migrants is crowding the southern border, this time at the Del Rio Port of Entry to the United States in Texas. Similar to past surges, some migrants are again being deprived of the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States before being returned to their home countries, while others find themselves with nowhere to go in Mexico.
Stunning images of almost 15,000 migrants, many of them from Haiti, encamped in a “staging area” under the Del Rio International Bridge in recent days drew attention to the desperation of the situation. The Port of Entry has been closed and the migrants were held in a contained area under a bridge while they awaited processing by US Border Patrol. Conditions in the camp have been described as squalid, with limited access to food, potable water, and public toilets in hot, dusty conditions. Additionally, reports emerged of Covid-19 spreading unabated through close quarters, with no means of testing or mitigation. As of this writing, all of the encamped migrants have been cleared from under the bridge, with many having been deported by plane while others have been admitted to the United States on a temporary basis, awaiting future immigration court dates.
It is a humanitarian disaster. With tens of thousands more Haitians expected to seek refuge in the US by the end of the year—in addition to the already-steady flow of migrants from Central and South America seeking to enter the US—the ongoing crisis is expected only to worsen.
Catholic President Joseph R. Biden’s response to this crisis involves a strategy of deterrence that is remarkably similar to that of his predecessor, including mass deportations of migrants by airplane back to Haiti and elsewhere. In the end, the Biden administration may wind up conducting “the largest mass expulsion of would-be asylum-seekers in recent American history”—14,000 by plane in the next three weeks alone. The US government will be sending many of them back to a country that is only beginning to recover from August’s major earthquake, is still reeling from the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July, and has indicated that they will be unable to adequately process the deportees when they arrive in Haiti. The first flights to arrive in Haiti left the migrants on the tarmac with their belongings scattered about; migrants reported being chained while on the flight. Those set to be expelled from the US include families with children (although unaccompanied minors are currently exempted from deportation) as well as pregnant women.
Biden’s current policy looks no different in practice than that of his predecessor, and that’s because it isn’t. “The majority of migrants continue to be expelled under CDC’s Title 42 authority,” according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Title 42 was a CDC policy drafted during the pandemic by the Trump administration, enabling expedited removal without an immigration court date for migrants, including those seeking asylum, under the guise of controlling the spread of Covid-19 in the US. This rule has applied to virtually all migrants, with an exception for unaccompanied minors; but in addition to the expulsion of adults traveling alone, pregnant women and families with children have also been deported. In recent months, migrants from Haiti, Vietnam, Brazil, and Central America have been deported by plane under Title 42. Before the enactment of that rule, an asylum-seeker to the US was entitled to a hearing with an immigration judge or to a “credible fear” interview, where they could make their case for being granted asylum in the United States due to a “credible fear of persecution or torture” if returned to their home country.
The dire conditions in Haiti right now cannot be exaggerated. Earlier this year, even before the August earthquake, the DHS issued a temporary rule preventing the deportation of Haitians due to “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.” And on September 23, the US Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned over the Administration’s use of Title 42 in expelling Haitians, writing a pointed resignation letter to the President in which he said the United States was sending Haitians back to “a collapsed state”:
The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy.
In response to this situation, also on September 23, Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, and Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, issued a joint statement on the crisis, calling Title 42 and related policies “not hallmarks of a ‘fair, orderly, and humane’ immigration system,” and said they are “saddened to see such a disregard for human dignity.” They urged “the U.S. government to reassess its treatment of migrants in Del Rio and elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially Haitians, who face life-threatening conditions if returned to Haiti and possible discrimination if expelled to third countries.”
It is worth recalling that deportation is evil, and that Catholics affirm that all human beings possess a God-given right to migrate. This teaching has been explicitly and continuously affirmed from St. Paul VI’s Pacem in Terris through St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, and to Pope Francis’s clear personal magisterium today. In Veritatis Splendor 80, St. John Paul II affirmed that deportation is an “intrinsically evil act,” one that cannot be morally justified due to the way in which it offends against human dignity. Human dignity demands both the ability to migrate freely, a theme frequently reiterated by Pope Francis, and humane accommodation in the country that is positioned to welcome migrants. “Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate” (FT 129).
Providentially, this week is National Migration Week in the United States, an occasion of prayer and reflection leading to observance of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The USCCB statement for the week reads:
We renew our appeal to our governments, to political leaders, and civil society, that they work together to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate migrants in accordance with their intrinsic dignity, as well as work with other countries in the region to eliminate conditions that compel their citizens to resort to dangerous and irregular migration, producing long-term solutions.
In his Message for the 2021 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which drew its theme, “An Ever Wider We,” from Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis wrote:
We must make every effort to break down the walls that separate us and, in acknowledging our profound interconnection, build bridges that foster a culture of encounter. Today’s migration movements offer an opportunity for us to overcome our fears and let ourselves be enriched by the diversity of each person’s gifts. Then, if we so desire, we can transform borders into privileged places of encounter, where the miracle of an ever wider ‘we’ can come about.
The consistent ethic of life that Catholics seek to uphold demands the rejection of the evil of mass deportation, no matter which president enforces immigration policy. The seamless garment requires both the defense of the innocent unborn and the stranger who is seeking welcome.
Many Catholics who affirm a consistent ethic of life had been led to believe that the president shares the convictions of the Church in the area of immigration. We ought to disabuse ourselves of this notion. Though he might talk the talk, he is not walking the walk. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis highlighted the sad truth that both populists and liberals are guilty of promoting the idea “that an influx of migrants is to be prevented at all costs” (FT 37). Catholics must address this unfolding crisis and protest the inadequacy and evil of our government’s response as we dream of a better world.
Prayer for World Day of Migrants and Refugees
Holy, beloved Father,
your Son Jesus taught us
that there is great rejoicing in heaven
whenever someone lost is found,
whenever someone excluded, rejected or discarded
is gathered into our “we”,
which thus becomes ever wider.
We ask you to grant the followers of Jesus,
and all people of good will,
the grace to do your will on earth.
Bless each act of welcome and outreach
that draws those in exile
into the “we” of community and of the Church,
so that our earth may truly become
what you yourself created it to be:
the common home of all our brothers and sisters. Amen.
Image: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. September 17, 2021, Some people displaced by the earthquake in Haiti have temporarily found shelter in camps such as this one in Les Cayes. © European Union, 2021. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Source: https://flic.kr/p/2mjv1VC