In recent years, Americans have experienced a significant surge in anti-immigration rhetoric. This rhetoric has been targeted at people from Muslim nations and from south of our border. For the latter category especially, the rhetoric has often dehumanized migrants from Mexico and Central and South America, saying things like they are vermin “infesting” our country.
Despite clear and repeated communication from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on Catholic Social Teaching with respect to migrants, US Catholics are sharply divided on the issue of immigration, with their views aligning closely to those of their respective political parties. Apparently, many Catholics have not gotten the memo from the USCCB on the dignity of migrants, regardless of legal status.
In Dignity & Justice: Welcoming the Stranger at Our Border, Linda Dakin-Grimm addresses this unfortunate failure of US Catholics to understand and embrace Catholic teaching about migrants. As she writes in her introduction, “I have come to understand that many Catholics have no idea what our church has long taught about migration, how Catholic teaching relates to US law and the legal system, and what Catholics are called to do when the laws are unjust” (p. xiv).
Dignity & Justice reminds us of the continued need for catechesis and formation in the Catholic Church’s teachings on migrants and the Gospel call to show mercy to those who are in need (cf. Matthew 25: 35-40).
This is not a purely theoretical book, however. Dignity & Justice tells the stories of people who have embarked on the treacherous journey to come to the US. These accounts come mainly from people in the process of seeking asylum in the US. They describe the difficult process of navigating the immigration court system for those seeking legal residence.
These personal stories are important, as they give faces to the migrants who are so often dehumanized by anti-immigration rhetoric. In this book, Dakin-Grimm gives us a portrait of people with names and faces, composed of flesh and blood. In this way we are reminded that the migrant is not some impersonal entity, but a person created in the image of God and worthy of such dignity.
As Gustavo Gutierrez once noted, “The poor and marginalized have a deep-rooted conviction that no one is interested in their lives and misfortunes.” Dignity & Justice communicates that the lives and experiences of these migrants matter.
The stories in this book not only seek to increase our appreciation for the dignity of these persons and allow us to better see them as Christ does, but they offer a means for our hearts to soften. These stories compassionately illustrate the real and serious dangers these people faced in their countries of origin, which ultimately led to their decisions to come to the US. I know from my own experience that hearing the personal stories of migrants is transformative. I too once embraced a hard-line view on immigration until I encountered migrants who had been turned away from the US border.
Catholic Social Teaching operates on the See-Judge-Act sequence. Anti-immigration rhetoric prevents us from seeing the migrant. Instead, we take action based on a dehumanized judgment of the migrant. Dignity & Justice teaches us to see the person who is coming to our country before making an uninformed judgment.
My advice is that readers of this book consider utilizing Ignatian contemplation when reading these stories. This will help draw lasting fruit from these personal accounts. Place yourself in the shoes of the person crossing the border. Experience the hardships, struggles and the deeply present danger that leads them to make this decision. How does it feel? Can you identify with the person’s need to come to the US? Sense the struggle amid the weariness of travel, the treachery of coyotes and the uncertainty around the asylum process. Noticing the various movements of the heart, speak to Jesus and listen to what he is saying to you in this experience.
Read in this way, this book can help you gain an experiential knowledge of the person seeking to come to the US, and will allow you to better identify with why he or she decides to come.
These stories and the historical backgrounds of these individuals refutes some of the harsh rhetoric used against migrants. For example, in response to the charge that they are “murderers” and “drug dealers,” Dakin-Grimm relays the story of Gilbert, a teenager from Guatemala who flees his country for the US to escape pressure from a local gang to deal drugs, including death threats (7-8). Against the stereotype that Latin American migrants are “rapists,” the book recounts the story of Gabriela, a teenager from Mexico, who flees her country to escape her father’s sexual abuse (37). This is a migrant who is not a rapist but is in danger of rape if she were to stay in her home.
The book also challenges some of the stereotypes about the social problems allegedly caused by immigration. For example, it has been suggested that they are responsible for bringing in the gang MS-13. In reality, MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, and authorities deported them to Central America in the 1990s (181). The truth is that the US exported this gang and possesses no moral high ground to assert that this is not a US problem. MS-13 was the gang that threatened Gilberto’s life.
Dignity & Justice draws attention to US enterprises such as the United Fruit Company, a company that seized Central American land and resources and exploited the native people. These enterprises worsened the poverty and living conditions for these people while enjoying exorbitant profits. This created a vacuum into which violence and gang activity moved. It also deepened destitution. All of this resulted in the need for people to come to the US to escape these dangers. In many ways, the US aided in creating the dangers that caused people to leave their countries, and the US ought to also be part of the solution.
This book describes the cycle of exploitation migrants experience. Gangs and enterprises exploit them, causing them to decide to leave for the US, only to be further exploited by coyotes who charge high fees and often extort even more money from their “clients.” If these migrants do enter the US, the exploitation continues through working below-minimum wage jobs. By not even paying them minimum wage, employers treat undocumented migrants as less than human and not worthy of equal dignity. Reading about this cycle brought forth feelings of contrition in me for how our society participates in this social sin. I believe that demonizing migrants is a strategy to prevent Americans from reflecting on our culpability in this cycle of exploitation.
I would encourage parishes to consider using this book in formation programs in Catholic Social Teaching. I also believe faith sharing groups can use this book to pray and discuss each other’s reactions to the stories and challenges raised.
Dakin-Grimm, an attorney with over thirty years of experience, clearly and succinctly delineates the legal challenges for migrants. For the migrants who seek asylum, the legal process is extremely complicated without an attorney and given the language barrier. Even with pro bono services, there are fees associated with filing motions and seeking court intervention. And even with legal and financial assistance, the categories for asylum are so particular that many migrants do not receive positive verdicts. Therefore, anti-immigration rhetoric that decries migrants for not going through the legal channels does not acknowledge that such channels act in a more preventative than permissive way.
A review of Dignity & Justice would be incomplete without highlighting Dakin-Grimm and her call to this important work. In 2015, Dakin-Grimm decided to leave behind her corporate law practice at a prestigious firm to work voluntarily with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), offering legal services to migrants seeking to remain in the US. In this work, Dakin-Grimm offers her background and talents to serve Christ in the marginalized.
However, one does not need to be an attorney to be effective in ministering to migrants. Dakin-Grimm highlights the important work of Martha DeLira, a volunteer partner who lovingly takes on migrant children who are in a transitional period and cares for them as her own. Additionally she offers similar care to migrant adults. Along with Dakin-Grimm, DeLira is the face of Christ to migrants fleeing oppression and facing continued oppression. In turn, these migrants reveal the face of Christ to Dakin-Grimm and DeLira.
In closing, I believe Dignity & Justice can not only lead to prayerful conversion, but can soften hearts on the issue of immigration. In this book, Linda Dakin-Grimm reveals the face of Christ in the migrant, and readers can be forever changed through this encounter.
 Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 24.
Dignity and Justice: Welcoming the Stranger at Our Border by Linda Dakin-Grimm is published by Orbis Books. Click here to order.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder.