DENVER — A Honduran woman says that federal immigration authorities took her daughter from her arms as she breast-fed the child. When she reached out for her daughter, she says she was handcuffed; she stood powerless as her daughter was taken away.
The woman was in a detention center — a jail — in Texas. She was waiting to be prosecuted for illegal entry into the United States. Her story, if true, is heart-wrenching. It cries out for justice.
Catholics see in every nursing mother an icon of our own mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who nursed the infant Jesus at her breast.
We see in the bond between mothers and their children a reminder of the life-giving and nurturing love of God, and the first means through which God’s love brings us into being, guides us and protects us.
“You drew me forth from the womb,” the Psalmist wrote to the Lord, “made me safe at my mother’s breasts” (22:9).
We don’t know what happened after that Honduran girl was taken from her mother’s arms.
We don’t know if she was taken to a warehouse, to be housed with hundreds of other children who had been separated from their immigrant parents. We don’t know if she sat strapped in a car seat, squalling for her mother, near the big kids who let themselves cry only as they fall asleep on gym mats spread across the floor, behind a chain link fence.
We do know that policies that indiscriminately separate children from their migrant parents at our national border violate the sacred sovereignty of families. They need to be stopped.
But it’s not enough to condemn the treatment of a mother separated from her child without asking what should happen instead. There have been, unfortunately, too few solutions proposed to address a real problem: how should the identity of family members be verified at the border, to ensure that children are not being trafficked? That issue needs more than moralizing or grandstanding. It needs a real solution.
It’s also not enough to call for an end to family separation at the border without asking what led to this humanitarian crisis, and what kind of reforms will really make a difference.
For that reason, no matter how discouraged they are, Catholics need to lead efforts to develop comprehensive immigration reforms rooted in the principles of justice. Only serious reforms, which create a system that protects security and the right to migrate, will end humanitarian crises at the border, mass detentions and deportations, and the deaths of migrants crossing through the desert.
Among the principles of Catholic social teaching are five that seem particularly relevant to just immigration policy:
- that nations have a right to security;
- that families have the right to migrate for safety, freedom or economic opportunity;
- that justice obliges countries who can receive immigrants without detriment to the welfare of their citizens to do so;
- that wealthy and stable nations ought to assist unstable and poor countries;
- and that the family is sacred, sovereign and before the state in priority.
The United States has the right to security: porous, unsafe, and uncontrolled borders do an injustice to those who cross them, and to our country’s citizens.
The United States also has the right to call on Central American and South American countries to reform their economies and to quell the violence and disorder that spurs emigration. The United States has the means, and the obligation, to help those countries work for stability, and to hold them accountable when they do not.
But the United States also has the capacity to receive legally many more immigrants than we do now. We’re facing a labor shortage that won’t be resolved by the restrictive caps and quotas we now place on immigration, or by the byzantine processes that make waiting times for legal migration longer than people’s lifetimes. And importing labor also expands our tax base and our domestic consumer base. Those benefits outweigh the costs — measured in the provision of social services — associated with increased immigration.
Beyond the economic reasons for making it easier to come to this country are the moral reasons. We are a wealthy and safe nation. Poor people, from poor countries, have the right to migrate for work and security. Our wealth and safety will not be fatally compromised by their arrival. This is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. “The money you have hoarded,” St. Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century, “belongs to the poor.”
In 1948, Pope Pius XII wrote to the bishops of the United States. He said that he was “preoccupied” and following with “anxiety ... those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.”
“The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people,” the Pope wrote. “For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.”
Seventy years later, the Holy Father’s words remain true, and important. The United States needs a program of immigration reform that recognizes our moral obligation to allow broader participation in our economy. Catholics must lead the way toward this reform.
We cannot hoard our prosperity. We cannot exaggerate our national sovereignty. Our land, our jobs, our prosperity itself exists primarily for the good of all. God did not make the land on which we live, or bless the country we call home, so that we could live in comfortable security while those outside our gates suffer violence, chaos and hunger.
The rule of law matters — it’s not reasonable or safe to expect that law-breaking at the border should continue unabated, or go unnoticed. But the justice of our laws matter too: No one can call for would-be immigrants to follow our nation’s laws without being sure that those laws are just. Our laws, measured against the Church’s criteria, are not just.
Comprehensive immigration reform, though, will be a long time coming. It will require statesmanship, sober reflection and serious analysis — not things we have come to expect from our national leaders. That both parties have reprehensible records on this matter demonstrates just how difficult our task will be. But we have to work for justice.
In the meantime, we need to insist that the sovereignty of the family is respected. There are times when parents and children should be separated — when parents have been abusive or neglectful, or when they pose a danger to their children or others. Adults who enter this country with children should be scrutinized — for the sake of the children, we should ensure that those adults really are their parents, that the children are not being trafficked or abused. But we need to do this without taking children from the arms of their mothers, or sending toddlers to live in detention facilities.
Using family separation as a deterrent for migration is an intolerable and contemptible injustice.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Pius XII wrote, “living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”
Catholics are called to work for justice for the Honduran woman and her daughter, separated during the intimacy of nursing. We’re also called to work for a just system of migration to this country, to be its architects and champions. We are called, like Mary and Joseph, to be protectors of migrants, aliens and refugees, especially those seeking peace as our neighbors.
J.D. Flynn is the editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency. This commentary reflects the opinions of the author, and does not necessarily reflect an editorial position of Catholic News Agency.