This week on Register Radio the entire program focused on the immigration crisis on the US-Mexican border. Jeanette De Melo talks with Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic Charities executive director Sister Norma Pimentel, Register reporter Peter Jesserer Smith, and ethics professor Christopher Kaczor.
Putting a Human Face on the Issue: Sister Norma Pimentel
Sister Norma Pimentel is a Sister with the Missionaries of Jesus. She is the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley and as such oversees the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville.
Catholic Charities services include emergency assistance, housing assistance, clinical counseling, pregnancy care, immigration services, and jail ministry to all four counties in the Rio Grande Valley. Sister Norma is right in the middle of this current immigration crisis.
“We have women and children that come every single day. The very first day, June 9, we welcomed 200 families,” Sister Norma said. “Since then, we’ve had an average of 150 to 200 folks that come every single day to us to get help.”
The site is a parish hall downtown, the closest church to the bus station. Sister Norma called the priest and asked permission to use the hall to help these people who were immigrating. They are offering rest, washing up, and food.
Most people spend a couple of hours to refresh and eat and then return to the bus station to travel to different parts of the United States, according to Sister Norma. These are people who have already been processed by government officials.
Sister Norma said they are families who are sharing their stories of great pain. They’re leaving their countries to try to make a better life for their children. The children, said Sister Norma, are small and very young: babies in their arms, toddlers, at the most ten years old.
“The unaccompanied children are kept in holding facilities,” said Sister Norma. Catholic Charities has been giving pastoral care to the children in the facilities.
“There are so, so many volunteers,” Sister Norma said, and they come from all over the country. The response has been far different than the protests and what’s been shown on mainstream media.
“These families are coming for a reason,” according to Sister Norma. “The situations in their countries is not good. Something needs to be done to help these countries to be safe. If we don’t do that and help these countries and find solutions for them to be in their homes and not have to migrate, they [the families] are still going to come.”
The stories the families are telling Sister Norma are of great fear and violence. She shared some specific stories from people she has worked with.
“This migration has been happening for the last two years,” according to Sister Norma. The fears have grown and gotten stronger.
Frustrations with the Policy: Peter Jesserer Smith
Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer with the Register. Before that, he was a Catholic freelance journalist for both the Register and Our Sunday Visitor, as well as a 2011 graduate of the National Journalism Center. Peter is a graduate of Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, and later served as its editor.
Smith recently wrote an article for the Register about the crisis unfolding at the US-Mexican border. In that article, he spoke with Bishop Kicanas of the Tuscan Diocese. The real concern of the bishop, according to Smith, was make the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) realize the need for the Church to assist and provide the unaccompanied minors spiritual and emotional care and programs.
“Many of them [the minors] are very traumatized,” said Smith. “Some reports elsewhere indicate that as many as a third of these girls who are coming have been raped or abused on their trip. There’s a need there for the Church. For some reason, there hasn’t been a great deal of eagerness on the part of the Department of Homeland Security and these agencies to involve the Church in that.”
Smith said that locally, the Church seems to have made progress. He said he spoke recently with Chris Smith, Republican representative from New Jersey, who said that he’s been very concerned that many churches and charitable agencies have not been able to have access to serve the needs of these traumatized young people.
“There’s a lot of data to suggest that [these people] are refugees and not simply migrants, as often this discussion gets framed,” Smith said. He cited a study by the Cato Institute that explores where the unaccompanied minors are from Nicaragua. The reason seems to be that Nicaragua doesn’t have the gang problem that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have.
Smith said, “If anything, one of things they’ve been showing is that the murder rate in Honduras has been skyrocketing. I believe, off the top of my head, that there are 90 murders per 100,000, which makes Honduras the murder capital of the world.” He shared stories of the killing, rape, and horror that the women and children are fleeing.
“Under US law, there’s a great possibility that they should be treated as refugees,” according to Smith. “One of the qualifications for refugees is that they have to show that they were persecuted or fear for persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In a sense, refusing to join a gang or to be part of it in a real sense of fear for their lives would make them refugees.”
The problem, Smith said, is that this administration is changing the rules of immigration so that they can deport these migrants from Central America as easily as those from Mexico. The indication is that they will not be treated as refugees but will instead be deported back to their home countries as soon as possible.
The reaction of the Catholic community is “profoundly mixed,” according to Smith. There is a lot of concern for the humanitarian issues because the president’s mixed messages being sent to people in these countries. The coyotes are telling them
Looking at the Situation Ethically: Christopher Kaczor
Christopher Kaczor is the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University and is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has authored 11 books, including The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church and The Ethics of Abortion. Dr. Kaczor’s research on issues of ethics, philosophy, and religion has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, National Review, the BBC, EWTN, and others.
“The foundation of all the Church’s teachings in terms of ethics is the fundamental dignity of all human beings,” said Kaczor. “This respect for the human person is at the core of Catholic teaching on a whole wide range of issues, including Catholic social thought.”
Kaczor pointed out that the children who are here, in the United States, are children and are made in God’s image. They need protection and help, and if they need aid, we really need to help them out.
Catholic social teaching promotes the family, and this can apply to both sides of this issue. On the one hand, we need to bring the adults with the children to this country. On the other hand, said Kaczor, we need to return the children to their families.
“One thing that’s important to remember about this situation and Catholic social thought is that we have to take into account not just the immediate situation but also the long-term consequences,” Kaczor said.
There’s a danger that if the children who are smuggled into the United States get citizenship that others will be smuggled in: it will incentivize the long and dangerous journey without parental oversight.
Is the just response mutually exclusive from the humanitarian response? Kaczor said that he hoped “they could both work together.” When children do something that violates the law, they’re treated very differently than adults and they’re not held accountable in the same way.
What would a compassionate response look like? “I’m not sure there’s a single right answer,” Kaczor said. “One possibility is this: that the people who are smuggling the children into the United States—those are adults, so those people need to be held accountable in the way that adults are held accountable. But little children…obviously are not held accountable in the same way. I think it would be unreasonable to punish them as if they are adults or as if they understood the law.”
“I”m hoping that both justice and compassion can be brought together,” he said, “and in this case, as in many cases, it will require a great deal of thought…we have to balance the common good of the people in these areas with the good also of the individuals who have come to the United States.”
Listen to this week’s show online or on your mp3 player.