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. 

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!

National Migration Week 2016: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”

M7-460_NMW PosterIn the Gospel of Matthew (25:35) Jesus tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and holds central place for those of us who work in the migration field. The migrant, who moves from one country to another, is truly a stranger in our midst. Often unfamiliar with the local tongue of the new country, not to mention its customs, the migrant needs the support of local communities so that she can better adjust to her new surroundings. National Migration Week 2016 picks up on the theme of welcome and, in doing so, calls on each of us to welcome the stranger among us.

Sadly, every year seems to bring a new migration crisis to the forefront.

In 2014, the United States witnessed a significant influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing violence in their homelands. Most of these migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. The Catholic Church has taken seriously the humanitarian and policy oriented aspects of this situation and advocates in support of increased protections for migrant children and their families who are arriving in the United States.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage. Since its outbreak, at least four million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of ISIS. Most have fled to surrounding countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many others have moved on to Europe with the hope of finding a place of peace and safety. Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have called on the U.S. government and the international community to provide support to both Syrian refugees fleeing violence and to countries that have been at the forefront of this humanitarian effort. In a related statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged:

 … all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.

In both the unaccompanied migrant child and Syrian refugee crises, the Catholic Church’s call to provide protections and support for these vulnerable people has often gone unheeded and has been instead met by demands to implement further restrictions on migration to the United States.

In the case of Syrians, suggestions have been made to ban Muslim migrants from entering the United States altogether. In the case of unaccompanied children, legislative efforts were undertaken to limit their international protections.

The Catholic bishops neither support a policy of open borders nor a process of unregulated migration from one country to another. Rather, they continue to defend the duties of the international community to implement internationally agreed upon protections that are due to vulnerable migrants, and to call upon world leaders to provide a place of welcome, wherever possible, to those who are fleeing an impossible situation.

This position is rooted in the Gospel, and concretely in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

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

See additional 2016 National Migration Week resources, including a bilingual prayer card.

How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

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

Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Reforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System

In the six years since the inception of the Obama administration’s detention reform initiative in 2009, the number of immigrant detainees per year has risen to more than 400,000, the administration has opened immense new family detention centers, and the overwhelming majority of persons in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have remained in prisons, jails and other secure facilities where they are subject to standards designed for criminal defendants and, in many ways, treated more harshly than criminals. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a report, Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System, which functions as a response to the ever growing immigrant detention system and includes a number of recommendations to make it more humane.

The report’s overarching recommendation is that the U.S. immigration detention system be dismantled and replaced with an alternatives to detention (ATD) program that uses a network of supervised release, case management and community support programs, designed to ensure court appearances. Highlighting the contrast between the current system and this new approach, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, NY noted that “there are ways to create a humane system and also ensure that immigrants are complying with the law, but we have created a detention industry in this country which preys upon the vulnerability of our fellow human beings, the vast majority of whom are not criminals.” Among other benefits, an alternative to detention system is both more humane and more cost effective than the correctional, national security focused system currently in place.

Alternatives to Detention programs respect human dignity better than does the current detention paradigm:

Unauthorized migrants apprehended by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are placed into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and are remanded to prison-like systems that is based on a correctional, criminal, and national security paradigm. Maintaining a system that relies on mandatory detention and does not take into account an individualized determination of flight risk and danger should be eliminated. For example, pregnant and nursing women, asylum-seekers (particularly those determined to have a credible fear of persecution), the very ill, the disabled, the elderly, immigrant families, and other vulnerable persons should not be detained but should be placed in an alternative to detention system that allows them to remain in contact with their family and avoid the psychological and at times physical trauma that accompanies life in prison based systems.

Alternative to Detention programs are more cost effective than the current detention paradigm:

The average immigration detention bed cost $158 per night in FY 2013, compared to $10.55 for the average daily cost of ATD programs. Between FY 2011 and 2013, the full service ATD program yielded an appearance rate of 99 percent at court hearings and 95 percent at scheduled final removal hearings. In short, ATD programs when properly funded and implemented can provide a relatively inexpensive method to ensure court appearances, while at the same time avoiding detaining these migrants in prison like structures that degrade human dignity.

What can you do?

Our biblical tradition calls us to love, act justly toward, and identify with persons on the margins of society, including newcomers and imprisoned persons. Please take a moment to read the report so that you can better understand the conditions confronting migrants who are trapped in prison-like settings. Educate your friends, family, and neighbors the conditions confronting detained migrants and alternatives that are available. Contact your Congresspersons and urge them to support measures that will decrease our dependence on private prison systems for the detention of migrants and move to an alternatives to detention model that simultaneously respects human dignity and ensures that migrants comply with the law as they wait for their judicial process to proceed forward.

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

Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Bishops Call for an End to Immigrant Family Detention

Archbishop Garcia-Siller calls for an end to immigrant family detention during a press conference in Dilley, Texas.

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller calls for an end to immigrant family detention during a press conference in Dilley, Texas.

Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran bishops visited today with young mothers and children who have fled violence in their home countries and are now incarcerated at Dilley Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. The bishops called upon the federal government to halt the practice of immigrant family detention, citing the harmful effects on mothers, children and the moral character of society. Among the bishops present were Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio and Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration.

In response to the influx of some 60,000 migrant family members who arrived along the southwest border in 2014, the federal government expanded its number of family detention centers across the country. Locations for these facilities include Karnes and Dilley, Texas and Berks, Pennsylvania. The purpose of these detention centers is to expand the ability of the federal government to detain migrant families on their arrival.

Migrant families (typically young mothers and children) apprehended while crossing the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are placed into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE then places these immigrant families into family detention facilities. Family immigrant detention facilities are described by ICE as “residential facilities,” and detained families are considered “residents.” In reality, however, these detained families have limited freedoms and are forced to live in a highly restrictive setting.

Many of these detained migrant families have valid, international protection claims that deserve fair adjudication. The United States bishops believe that during this process they should not be held in detention for indefinite periods of time. Children should not be locked up in prison-like facilities that restrict their movements and stunt their psychological and emotional development. Placing vulnerable women and children in detention who have experienced extreme persecution and violence contravenes our moral and religious principles to protect the defenseless and welcome the stranger.

The bishops are deeply concerned that immigrant family detention compromises the health and welfare of children, especially their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Following the bishops’ their visit to Dilley, Archbishop Garcia-Siller asked, “Why? Why do we feel compelled to place in detention such vulnerable individuals –traumatized young mothers with children fleeing persecution in their home countries?”

Instead of incarceration, the bishops support community-based alternatives to detention programs that are more humane than the mandatory detention programs currently in place.

Dr. Todd Scribner is education & outreach coordinator at the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services.