January 8, 2016


Welcoming the stranger

The U.S. bishops have designated this week, Jan. 3-9, as National Migration Week with the theme, “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me.” The theme comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 25:35-40), in which Christ said that those who welcome a stranger welcome him.

This year’s observance comes during a time when more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria and the surrounding region because the Islamic State is intent on driving out Christians and people of other faiths, including Muslims who disagree with their theology. It also comes while this country is divided between those who want to welcome the strangers and those who want to keep them out.

A month ago, there was a disagreement between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. The governor asked that no Syrian refugees be resettled in Indiana because of safety concerns after the archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services had made arrangements to bring a family to Indianapolis.

Archbishop Tobin met with the governor and listened to his concerns, but then made the decision to bring the family here. It consists of a husband, wife and two small children who escaped from Syrian violence three years ago, and then spent two years in refugee camps undergoing extensive security checks.

It was inevitable that there would be a collision between the governor and the archbishop when Pence tried to keep Syrians out. Archbishop Tobin made the decision he did as an expression of his fidelity to the teachings of the Church, as a way to practice what it preaches.

The United States should be receiving many more Syrian refugees because it is supposed to be a country that welcomes refugees and immigrants. That’s why we have the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, which has welcomed strangers since 1886, although most immigrants now enter the United States other than by ship.

European countries, especially Germany and Sweden, are showing more compassion for refugees than the United States. Germany took in more than 1 million refugees during 2015, knowing full well that there’s a possibility that Islamist terrorists might infiltrate those refugees.

We can understand people’s fears that such terrorists would also try to enter the United States. But how many terrorists would have the patience to spend a couple years in refugee camps and go through interrogations? We wouldn’t be letting everyone in, as the European countries had to do because of the vast number of refugees.

In his statement about the resettlement of the Syrian family, Archbishop Tobin said, “For 40 years, the archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world.”

Then he emphasized, “This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians, and we will continue this life-saving tradition.”

It’s not only Syrian refugees, of course. We still have the challenge of refugees from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They are mainly women and children, and often children traveling by themselves, who are trying to escape the armed gangs that are terrorizing those countries.

These refugees were in the news a year ago when more than 66,000 children appeared at our southern border over several months. But the crisis there has not disappeared, and the United Nations refugee agency said recently, “With authorities often unable to curb the violence and provide redress, many vulnerable women are left with no choice but to run for their lives.”

There’s a difference between refugees and immigrants. Refugees are those who are fleeing violence, who “have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture.” Immigrants are those who are trying to make better lives for themselves than they can do in their countries. The Catholic Church aids both refugees and immigrants.

The Church has long called for reform of our immigration laws to make it possible for more migrants to enter the country legally, especially to keep families together.

Pope Francis has frequently asked countries to welcome migrants and facilitate their integration. On Dec. 15, he said, “Special concern should be paid to the conditions for legal residency, since having to live clandestinely can lead to criminal behavior.”

When the pope visits Mexico next month, he is expected to address immigration during a Mass on the U.S.-Mexican border.

—John F. Fink

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