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Catholics insist seeking asylum not a crime

The migrant caravan through the eyes of Catholic social teaching

A CARAVAN now estimated at 7,000 people is currently making its way north. Many of the asylum-seekers have said they plan to stay in Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Niet has pledged medical support and temporary work permits, but an estimated 4,000 intend to continue the trek up to the U.S. border.

As President Donald Trump prepares to send 5,200 troops to Mexican border to block the 4,000 Central American asylum-seekers, Catholic leaders are urging governments to address the underlying causes of migration while reminding people that seeking asylum is not a crime.

“We affirm that seeking asylum is not a crime. We urge all governments to abide by international law and existing domestic laws that protect those seeking safe haven, and to ensure that all those who are returned to their home country are protected and repatriated safely,” they said.

“While nations have the right to protect their borders, this right comes with responsibilities. Governments must enforce laws proportionately, treat all people humanely, and provide due process,” they continued.

The caravan calls to mind two seemingly conflicting principles in Catholic social teaching: the right to migrate, and the right of sovereign nations to control their borders. Yet Kristin E. Heyer, theology professor at Boston College, explained that the right to control borders is not absolute.

 “In the case of blatant human rights violations, the right to state sovereignty is relativized by the tradition’s primary commitment to protecting human dignity,” she said in an email to America. “Whereas limits may be set, the tradition emphasizes that powerful nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migrant flows and that the right to asylum must not be denied when people’s lives are genuinely threatened in their homeland.”

Many of the migrants in the caravan are fleeing Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries are beset by “the world’s highest murder rates, deaths linked to drug trafficking and organized crime and endemic poverty,” Heyer said.

“The value of securing borders has to be weighed against these rights of asylum seekers to seek protection and the demands of social justice,” she said.

The “America first” mindset, she said, “diverts attention from root causes, U.S. complicity and lasting policy reforms.” Migrants are cast as threats to security, despite many studies that have shown otherwise, Heyer said.

“Fear of difference – even of very young children crossing a border and offering themselves to authorities – is relatively easy to mass-market, and it shapes society’s imagination in powerful ways,” she said.

That includes the minds of Catholics, according to Fr Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., professor of theology and Latino studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“We really need to appreciate what we mean when we say the church is ‘catholic,’” he said. “Communion is the result of achieving harmony among difference. Unity is not based on uniformity. It’s difficult because people fear difference.”

The Trump administration may be playing on those fears in the case of the caravan, Fr Deck said. Mr Trump “has chosen the anti-immigrant stance as something that is useful to him,” he said.

“There’s a tremendous challenge for the Latino community to stand up and confront the issue and not allow itself to be victimized by Trump or anyone else,” Fr Deck said. “The faith becomes an energizer that can galvanize people to stand up for the dignity of the human person.”

The dignity of the human person is the foundation of Catholic social teaching, according to Fr David Hollenbach, S.J., a moral theologian at Georgetown University. The unity of the family is also a primary concern in that tradition, especially with respect to immigration.

U.S. citizens do have obligations to each other, Fr Hollenbach said, comparing the relationship to the one that a household shares.

“Still, if my neighbor’s house is on fire, I cannot say it isn’t my problem,” he said. “All human beings have a fundamental dignity that demands respect. We cannot say, ‘It’s just Americans’” who deserve human dignity and protection.

In 1948, the United Nations recognized the right of individuals to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. According to the U.N., a well-founded fear of persecution can involve race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

According to its 1951 convention on refugees, the U.N. prohibited asylum seekers from being detained simply for seeking asylum. The convention also recognized that seeking asylum may require individuals to “breach immigration rules.”

The church teaches that people also have the right to migrate because of acute economic necessity. According to a summary of Catholic social teaching on migration from the U.S. bishops: “People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. This is based on biblical and ancient Christian teaching that the goods of the earth belong to all people. While the right to private property is defended in Catholic social teaching, individuals do not have the right to use private property without regard for the common good.”

“You don’t say that someone who is fleeing from extreme need should be regarded as a criminal,” Fr Hollenbach said. – America & Crux

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