America News Analysis

The ‘migrant caravan’ is testing the US bishops’ stance on borders

Caught in the fray (CNS)

The bishops sometimes imply that open borders are an absolute imperative. Will the caravan change their minds?

America’s Catholic clergy are longstanding opponents of immigration restrictions. In 2003, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement with the Mexican bishops’ conference called “Strangers No Longer” condemning efforts to curtail immigration – legal or otherwise – across America’s southern border. “We stand in solidarity with you,” they told migrants. “We commit ourselves to your pastoral care and to work toward changes in church and societal structures that impede your exercising your dignity and living as children of God.”

More recently, the Jesuit priest and journalist Fr Thomas Reese was among protesters who were arrested for demonstrating against the Trump administration’s (now defunct) plan to deport “Dreamers”: illegal immigrants who entered the country as minors.

But things got tricky when a massive “migrant caravan” left Honduras, forcing its way through Mexican police barricades. Some hoped to make it to the United States, but others are settling down in Mexico.

Although Mexico is prosperous when compared to many other Latin American nations, Mexican nationalists who advocate stricter immigration controls on their southern border employ much of the same rhetoric as their American counterparts – and the irony isn’t lost on demonstrators. “We’re sounding like Trump’s America here in Mexico,” one told NBC News. “He’s defending his border, unlike our president,” said another; “Now there will be more violence in Tijuana.”

Activists and relief workers recognize that the immigration debate has been flipped on its head. Jorge Andrade, who coordinates a collective of Catholic-run migrant shelters, told the Catholic News Agency that caravan organisers “have good intentions, but they’re exposing [the migrants] to danger. Unfortunately, there are groups [of migrants] there that want to cross the border under these circumstances.” Andrade added: “These are difficult times [but] it’s as if they have this chip – they have to go north – and they think that it was going to be the same as the previous times, but it’s not like that.”

There’s wide disagreement about what the proper Catholic response to the caravan is. Traditionally, immigration was regarded as a matter of prudential judgment: governments, acting in good faith, apply fixed principles to variable circumstances. (The opposite would be an absolute moral imperative; eg abortion is always and everywhere impermissible.) Here, the principle of charity to one’s neighbour is balanced against practical realities, such as whether social services or the job market can handle the strain of the new arrivals. Then there’s the question of law and order: the Church has never asserted the fundamental right to enter any country one chooses without passing through customs.

The US bishops sometimes imply that open borders are an absolute imperative; in official statements, they seem impervious to any arguments that increased mass immigration is imprudent for American society. Perhaps the caravan crisis will lead them to take a more nuanced view on the matter.