Pastoral Letter “Strangers No Longer” Still Strong 15 Years Later

Each week’s news seems to bring new attention to the migration crisis: the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, child migrants escaping violence in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, refugees from war torn areas in the Middle East, and others.

The migration of peoples from one country to another is hardly new to the modern age, but the sheer numbers of people being displaced in recent decades—due to violence, economic need, environmental causes, and other reasons—has challenged governments to take stock of the various crises giving rise to migration and to find ways to respond in responsible ways.

Following the massive displacement of people that coincided with World War II, Catholics sought to better understand ways in which their own tradition could inform their understanding of the phenomenon, and how best to respond to it. Perhaps one of the most prominent efforts in the early post-World War II period was the publication of Pope Pius XII’s Apostolic Constitution, Exsul Familia, which explicitly held up the Holy Family as an archetype for refugees.

Subsequent popes continued to explore the question of migration, and in doing so addressed the responsibility of receiving countries toward migrant communities, the responsibilities of migrants living in a new homeland, and the importance of providing protections to marginalized populations. The Migration Day messages that are issued every year by the pope are a very useful resource to better understand the teaching of the Church on migration.

In 2003, the bishops of the United States and Mexico made an important contribution to this effort with the publication of their joint pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. This letter, whose principles are still current, aimed to clarify some of the unique challenges confronting their respective countries with regard to migration, understand the application of Catholic teaching, and provide guidance to policy makers as they try to respond. An important part of this letter consists in the bishops’ effort to provide guiding principles that should inform policymaking. These include:

  1. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
    All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.

    2. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
    The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When people cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.

    3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.
    The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which can protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

    4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
    Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

    5. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
    Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often, they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.

On the pastoral letter’s tenth anniversary, I helped to edit a volume that reflected on many of the themes of the letter, and highlighted some of the important developments that occurred since its publication. Just five years later, as we celebrate the pastoral letter’s fifteenth anniversary, we find ourselves in a new set of circumstances as efforts to restrict migration in the United States are in full force.

Given these changed conditions, it is as important now as ever for Catholics to understand Church teaching on migration and in doing so push for legislation that respects the human dignity of migrants. The Justice for Immigrants Campaign, launched partly in response to the publication of the pastoral letter, is an important mechanism that Catholics can take advantage of in this regard. I urge you to visit the website and sign up to the listserv, so that you can receive regular updates on migration related phenomenon, and better understand what the Church is doing in this field.

In addition, the recently initiated migration campaign, Share the Journey, is an effort on the international level to educate Catholics on migration issues and Church teaching. In the U.S., the campaign is being implemented by USCCB, CRS, and CCUSA. On the website you can find a variety of useful resources to educate and inspire others to take action in defense of migrants and vulnerable populations.

Todd Scribner, PhD, is the Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Going Deeper
Visit and find dialogue resources to address difficult issues on immigration. Also, find inspiration by learning how a diocesan Immigration Team Fosters Participation and Respect for Human Dignity.

Get Ready for World Refugee Day!

Todd Scribner, Education Outreach Coordinator, Migration & Refugee Services/USCCB

Every year on June 20, the international community acknowledges World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the conditions confronting the millions of people who have been forced from their homes and countries under threat of persecution and possible death and to acknowledge their humanity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of forcibly displaced people globally to be at about 65.3 million, including 21.3 refugees. We are today experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. This is a troubling fact that deserves careful attention and global collaboration.

World Refugee Day provides us all an opportunity to better understand the international circumstances that give rise to displacement, the various solutions that are in place to respond to the problem, and the important role of the U.S. resettlement system in this process. While important, it is not enough for us to merely learn about refugees; we must also act and advocate in solidarity with them

At a recent audience of Catholic and Lutheran pilgrims, Pope Francis emphasized this point, declaring that “you cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian… It is hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who needs my help.”

Spurred by the Holy Father’s words, we turn to numerous refugee crises around the world about which we can both learn and act upon.

The crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to be a pressing concern for the leadership of the Catholic Church as countless millions of men, women, and children continue to be displaced and persecuted because of the ongoing conflict. The forced migration of children and families from the Northern Triangle in Central America is also a troubling phenomenon.

In both situations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for expanded protections for the most vulnerable populations in these migrant flows. It is imperative that the international community of nations and civil society, including faith communities, work together in both challenging situations, addressing the root causes of forced migration and putting into place solutions that will provide alternatives to forced migration in both regions.

While both Syria and Central America continue to be a source of troubling refugee crises, we should not forget other parts of the world wherein forced migration is also ongoing phenomenon. The conflict in South Sudan has stretched on for over four years, and is Africa’s largest displacement crisis today. As of October 2016, 1.2 million people had fled South Sudan as refugees to neighboring countries. Other sizable populations have fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere in recent years.

We invite you to download, distribute, and use our World Refugee Toolkit, which contains spiritual-related resources, as well as advice on how to use media to draw attention to the problem, and suggested initiatives that you can use in your local community.

Additionally, a series of other resources is available that highlight various aspects of the refugee resettlement program is available. These publications were created to help you better understand issues related to refugees and other forms of forced migration.

Finally, in addition to learning about these issues, it is important that we act. One way that you can do this is by signing up for the Justice for Immigrants campaign. By doing so, you will receive information about new resources as they become available alongside time sensitive action alerts. By engaging these alerts, you will be in a position to help shape public policy on migration related issues and to help ensure that the human dignity of migrants is respected in the law and in our communities.

Todd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 

In Solidarity With Syria

prayerenglishThe picture of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old boy, who washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach last year after drowning along with eleven others including his mother and brother as they tried to escape war-torn Syria, alerted the world to the plight of Syrian refugees. Pope Francis, in an effort to stem this humanitarian crisis, called on all Catholics to “express the Gospel in concrete terms” and assist the millions of refugees risking death to migrate from Syria. “In front of the tragedy of the tens of thousands of refugees escaping death by war or hunger, on the path towards the hope of life, the Gospel calls us, asks us to be ‘neighbors’ of the smallest and most abandoned.”

The University of Scranton responded to this call from the Holy Father last year by launching In Solidarity With Syria, a coordinated effort involving university administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students to aid those most affected by the current immigration crisis through education and advocacy. Since then, I have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of concern from the students, faculty, and staff for refugees coming to Scranton.

We began last September with an interreligious prayer vigil during which the community was invited to pray in solidarity with our sisters and brothers displaced from their homes in Syria. One who spoke that night was a student originally from Hebron. He spoke of his Muslim faith being honored and respected at a Catholic university. “Together… we can fight the darkness and violence. And together we will make a better future for our families and children.”

Other events followed from that evening of prayer: students wrote to elected officials, attended lectures given by authors on the topic, heard first-hand experiences from advocates working directly with refugees, watched documentaries together, participated in discussions on the topic, and greeted refugees arriving in the Scranton area. We held several film series, took part in webinars, facilitated a refugee simulation, hosted round-table discussions, and continued to greet more families arriving at the Scranton airport. Our final event last year took place at a local restaurant where Syrian refugee women served as guest chefs, sharing their cuisine and cultural traditions. This year, we are continuing the conversation with the community, beginning with David Miliband, President and CEO of International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary on the Global Refugee Crisis, who presented new insights to our campus about how we can help refugees together.

What can you do? Lots.

First, foremost, and imperatively, educate your community about what it means to be a refugee living in the United States.

Many think there’s no system in place to oversee refugees seeking entrance into the country. In reality, it takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months for a person to achieve refugee status. The vetting process involves a number of governmental and non-governmental partners both overseas and in the United States. Their need is dire and immediate, yet many live in refugee camps for years awaiting the chance to legally enter our country. A local Scranton refugee from Bhutan who now works with Catholic Social Services spent the first 18 years of his life in a refugee camp. It’s easier for someone to enter on a tourist, work, or student visa than it is to become a refugee in our country.

Another concern many people have is security. Contrary to pronouncements by leaders in our government and those seeking political office, refugees entering the U.S. are not a threat to American communities. Since January 2010, nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, none has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges. And people seeking to enter as refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They have to prove they are facing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Seeking job opportunities is not a qualification for refugee status.

How can you get started?

Form a committee to begin outreach to your community and then plan educational programs that will make an impact. But you don’t have to start from scratch. There are resources out there. Check out the events and programs facilitated at The University of Scranton since September 2015 that are listed on our In Solidarity With Syria web page. Other resources include:

You can also plan a Refugee Simulation and invite community members to participate. The simulation was created by Jesuit Refugee Services.

Educational programs, advocacy opportunities, and prayer activities are concrete, tangible ways to not only express the Gospel, but also to live the Gospel – to bring Christ’s message of love, hope, and justice to those seeking sanctuary here with us.

Don’t forget about five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in the back of an ambulance covered in blood and debris after surviving an airstrike this past August in his native Aleppo. Once again, a picture of a small boy awakened the world to the plight of those living in Syria just as that photo of Aylan did last year.

For Omran there is hope – he is still alive. But he needs our help. This call to help is quite challenging in light of the fear that many have, given the state of the world and the words we hear from today’s political aspirants and news media agents.

As people of faith, we cannot turn our backs on our sisters and brothers at risk of life or liberty. Together we can build communities that move beyond those fears in order to care for the refugee in our midst and respect the smallest and most abandoned of our neighbors.

headshot_helen-wolfHelen M. Wolf, Ph.D. is Executive Director, Office of Campus Ministries at The University of Scranton.

Going Deeper

Did you know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is active in assisting those who have fled their countries, through its Migration and Refugee Services (MRS)?  MRS provides processing and resettlement services, assists unaccompanied children, leads efforts to end human trafficking, and engages in public policy advocacy. Find out more about how the U.S. Catholic bishops are urging Catholics to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Standing with Our Immigrant Brothers and Sisters

Catholics know that every person is made in the image of God. Everyone is due our respect and our love. We’re called to care especially for those who most need our welcome, including newcomers to our country. Because the Church in America has always been an immigrant Church, Catholics feel this responsibility in a particular way.
The Catholic story in America is a story of immigrants, from the first Catholics who arrived here hundreds of years ago, to the waves of European immigrants whose nickels and dimes built so many churches and schools across this country, to those arriving today in search of a better life for themselves and their families. This is who we are.

We are also a family – a family whose life is enriched by the gift of our diversity. Every Sunday, in parishes across the country, people from different backgrounds come together to celebrate Mass. Many cities have Masses offered in twenty or more languages. Catholics of all backgrounds—Chinese, Polish, Guatemalan, Irish, Mexican, Ghanaian, Korean, Honduran, Lithuanian, Vietnamese —come together and are enriched by the Eucharist and by one another.

As a family, we take care of each other and our neighbors. Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, and social service ministries care for immigrants every day, from language classes to job training programs to offering a helping hand when someone’s in need. We’ve been helping integrate immigrants into American life since Catholics first arrived on our shores. This is what we do.

Given who we are and what we do, we have a special responsibility to reject the hostility that dominates the public conversation about immigration today. The language we use in the public square matters. It should reflect the best of our American traditions – traditions of welcome; of unity in diversity; of care for those in need.

Pope Francis reminds us that immigrants are no different than our own family members and friends; each “has a name, a face, and a story.” Let us remember that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were also immigrants in a foreign land when they fled from King Herod to Egypt. When we warmly welcome newcomers we open our hearts wider to Christ.

Most Reverend Eusebio Elizondo is Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle and Chairman of the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

World Refugee Day: An Opportunity for Reflection and Action

In April 2016, Pope Francis joined Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos to stand in solidarity with refugees. In his remarks, he lamented their suffering and said:

God created mankind to be one family; when any of our brothers and sisters suffer, we are all affected. We all know from experience how easy it is for some to ignore other people’s suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability. But we also know that these crises can bring out the very best in us.

Monday, June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day, which provides Catholics an opportunity to reflect on the conditions confronting the millions of people who, like those on Lesbos, have been forced from their homes under threat of persecution and possible death.

The most recent reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated the number of forcibly displaced people to be at about fifty-nine million. In other words, about one in every 122 people living today is either internally displaced, a refugee, or seeking asylum. This is a staggeringly large number. Current political conditions around the world show few signs of improvement, with the likelihood that things will only worsen in the coming months.

Often our attention is drawn either to situations of mass displacement or migration related crises that occur closer to home. With respect to the former, the conflict in Syria has resulted in massive upheavals, with as many as nine million Syrians displaced from their homes, and over three million seeking safety in a neighboring country such as Lebanon or Turkey. Approximately one in four people living in Lebanon are refugees.

Closer to home, the increase in the number of asylum-seeking unaccompanied migrant children and migrant families who arrived along the southwest border of the United States in recent years precipitated a moment of crisis and a media frenzy by the summer of 2014. With an average of 6,800 children apprehended in each year from 2004 – 2011, the number jumped to over 13,000 children in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 and over 24,000 in 2013. Over 50,000 were detained in FY 2014 and, although a decrease was evident the following year (28,387), the numbers again increased in the first quarter of FY 2016 (18,558). Trends are similar for migrant families apprehended over this same stretch of time.

In both situations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for expanded protections for the most vulnerable populations in these migrant flows. With respect to Syria, the bishops have called on the U.S. government to provide 100,000 annual resettlement slots for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. With respect to Central America, they have stressed the importance of recognizing the families and unaccompanied migrant children fleeing their home countries as refugees, and the need to ensure that the international protections due to these populations is respected.

These are both important situations that are deserving of our continued attention. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of people migrating in both of these crises and others like them often obscures the individuality – the personhood – of individual migrants who are making a long and dangerous journey to what they hope will be a place of safety. For this reason, it is important that we take the opportunity to highlight the people who are affected.

People like Omar, who fled Syria under threat of torture and likely death, and who has since found a new home here in the United States where he is now thriving.

Or like Mariam, who experienced violence in her home country Sierra Leone and then spent years in a refugee camp in Nigeria before coming to the United States.

These kinds of stories help us to recognize the person behind the refugee crises that we hear about every day. They are not just part of a faceless mass of people, but individuals who deserve to have their dignity respected and the opportunity to live a life worth living.

As Pope Francis stated, these crises can, and should, bring out the best in all of us.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 

Go Deeper!

The Catholic Relief Services Collection: Helping Jesus in Disguise

crs-facebook-2-403x504Each time we encounter a suffering person, we encounter Jesus in disguise. The Catholic Relief Services Collection (CRSC) funds six Catholic agencies that serve the disguised Jesus in our suffering brothers and sisters around the world. His disguise might be that of those suffering from natural disaster, those displaced by violence or war, or those migrants searching for a better life.

In the developing world, it is often hard for families to support themselves and their children. Sophie, a widow working in a village in Burkina Faso, was struggling to feed her family and pay for schooling for her children. Thanks to the help of Catholic Relief Services, one of the CRSC supported organizations, her village was able to set up a Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC). Through the SILC, members contribute what they can afford, allowing them to pool their resources and save collectively. Members can then borrow money to meet pressing needs or develop business opportunities. Through the SILC, Sophie was able to take out a $200 loan to cover startup costs for her own canteen, a sum that would be nearly impossible for her to save. Her canteen has been very successful and began to pay off in only six months. Her community has benefited too, as she has been able to hire three assistants to work with her. Without the SILC and the work of CRS, it would have been nearly impossible for her, and others like her, to create a sustainable life for her and her family.

2016-crs-montage-text-270x200Even in the developed world, it is difficult for immigrants to navigate the American justice system and to know their rights. Another organization that receives funds from the Catholic Relief Services Collection is CLINIC, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. The BIA Pro Bono Project that CLINIC manages uses funds from the CRSC to provide support and legal representation to immigrants facing the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Pedro entered the United States to provide a better life for his family and to flee violence and persecution. He entered the United States without inspection, but nearly 20 years later, Pedro was taken to an immigration detention facility away from his wife and three children while the BIA decided whether he could stay in the country. Thanks to the BIA Pro Bono Project, law students discovered that he had never been considered for Temporary Protected Status, and local legal counsel represented him. This counsel helped determine that he was in fact eligible for this legal status. After a year in a detention facility, separated from his family, Pedro was able to return home.

This Lent, remember our suffering brothers and sisters and Jesus in Disguise.

Funds acquired from the CRS Collection are also distributed to these organizations: USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services for refugee resettlement USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for advocacy The Holy Father’s Relief Fund for emergency relief USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church for evangelization and ministry

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (mt 25:40)

Bevin Kennedy, Office of National Collections at the USCCB

Bevin Kennedy, Office of National Collections at the USCCB

Bevin Kennedy is the Assistant Director for Promotions in the Office of National Collections at the USCCB.

Now is the time for peace!

Pic 1 posterA poster with the message, “Now is the time for Peace,” greeted bishops from Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States when they arrived in Jordan for a solidarity visit. The “peace now” theme permeated meetings with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces represented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the meetings in Jordan. Then the Bishop and I went on to Lebanon to meet with the local Church and more refugees.  The situation in both Jordan and Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

In Jordan, we learned that they are hosting about 1 million Syrian refugees and 60,000 Iraqi refugees. This is a heavy burden for relatively small country of modest means with about 7 million people.

In Lebanon, the statistics are even more startling. With a native population of only 4.5 million, Lebanon is hosting about 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, but also some Iraqis.  That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 140 million refugees over five years!  We are scheduled to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, not exactly our fair share.

pic 2 mass for migrants refugees

Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Cardinal Raï distributes Communion at Mass for Migrants and Refugees at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Beirut.

But statistics only tell part of the story of the suffering that war, violence and persecution have brought to the region. Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon are doing amazing work assisting both refugees and local people.  With the support of Catholic Relief Services and others, they serve Muslims and Christians.  It makes you proud to be Catholic.  They enabled us to meet with refugees, to hear their stories.

An Iraqi Christian family told us they had good relations with their Muslim neighbors before they fled the Nineveh plains in the wake of so-called Islamic State. They found refuge in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and now Jordan.  They hope to be resettled in a country of refuge.  They cannot contemplate going back to Iraq.

We also met a woman who had fled Mosul. Her family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.  She, a teacher and her husband is a hospital worker, escaped with their three daughters, ages 28 to 24.  It took them ten tense hours at night in constant fear to reach nearby Erbil. Protecting their daughters from being raped or kidnapped was a challenge.  They witnessed killings and saw young women who were taken hostage as they fled.

Another woman reported that her father was kidnapped in Syria because Christians are being persecuted. When her brother reported the kidnapping he was put in jail for two days.

Refugees struggle in Lebanon where everything is expensive. One man said he works long hours but barely makes enough for them to live in Lebanon.  Life was better in Syria.  They want to go to Australia where they have been accepted, but their UN file is not moving.  A mother reported that her children only get milk once a day.  She is willing to go back to Syria if the situation improves because her son needs medical assistance.  Originally, they thought they’d be in Lebanon for two months.  It has been years.

These encounters and many others give a face to the statistics. There are lives and families behind the numbers.  At these and many other encounters, Bishop Cantú assured the refugees that they are not forgotten.  And he affirmed what we heard time and time again, “Now is the time for peace.”  For only peace can alleviate the refugee crisis.  I hope all sides realize that at the peace talks in Geneva.

Colecchi headshot

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Go deeper:

Read Archbishop Kurtz’s statement regarding refugees fleeing Syria.

Learn about the work of Migration and Refugee Services/USCCB in resettling an supporting refugees in the United States.

Join Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, in advocating to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people worldwide.