By Randy Mehan
When it comes to immigration, everyone has an opinion. But how do ethics factor in? This is what Fr. Thomas Massaro, S.J. addressed during a talk entitled “How Catholic Teaching on Migrants and Refugees Provides Guidance on the Wayward Policies of the U.S.” at the Fordham University Rose Hill campus on Wednesday, October 17, 2018.
Focusing on the ethics behind immigration and the US-Mexican border, Fr. Massaro talked about the events that had transpired this past summer, where families were separated from one another at the border, along with how we as a society view “the other.” He also discussed the current state of the American government, as well as the presidential administration.
Though it has been a few months since this was in the news on a daily basis, Fr. Massaro reminded us that approximately 2,300 families were affected by the policies of the current administration.
This is not, however, the only time that immigration has been an issue in recent history. Fr. Massaro also reminds us of the so-called travel ban, where immigrants of seven countries, five of which have large Muslim populations, are not permitted to enter the country. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which promotes the protection of undocumented immigrants who were brought here at a young age in childhood, has also been attacked by the current administration. Rather than making a path to citizenship easier for immigrants, especially in the case of asylum, the current administration feels that it is even more imperative to keep them from crossing the border in the first place.
Yet, Fr. Massaro remembers a time (not so long ago), where our grandparents and great-grandparents were welcomed into the United States and were able to live out the long-fabled “American Dream.” He even quoted the famous “bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” poem on the Statue of Liberty. While he seems to have been disappointed with the most recent events, Fr. Massaro also appears to be optimistic about returning to a time when we can welcome immigrants into the country, rather than turning them away or imprisoning them.
Solidarity is crucial in the current crisis, where children are taken from their families. Rather than viewing immigrants seeking asylum as a threat to the nation, Fr. Massaro encouraged us to think of them as brothers or sisters instead. He referenced Luke 10, where Jesus talks about the Good Samaritan. Interestingly enough, the poor person that the Samaritan helps was neglected, but it is the Samaritan himself that is the part of the story usually left untold. For context, the ancient Jews who Jesus was preaching to held poor views about the Samaritans. One could say that when Samaria sends their citizens to Jerusalem, “they’re not sending their best.” In other words, the immigrant could be seen as the poor man that was helped by the Samaritan, which would inspire those who are welcomed into this country due to circumstance of the location of their birth to help those who may have been born just ten miles away.
However, I find it more accurate to view the immigrant as the Good Samaritan, while the poor man could be the legal American citizen. Of course, at this time, those who are seeking asylum in the United States are in need of help, but if we are to view those who enter into the county as the Samaritan, rather than as a threat or a burden, I think the way we think about immigration would drastically change for the better.
Additionally, Fr. Massaro also discussed his views on Pope Francis’s position on immigration. While the case on the border this summer was especially shocking and disheartening for many people, this is not the only immigration issue that the world faces today. We are in a time in history where, as Fr. Massaro mentioned, up to 60 million citizens are displaced from their homes. Citizens of places such as Syria and Myanmar, where there are civil wars and genocide, are traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to find a place for asylum. Many of them are going to countries in Europe, where Sweden (with a population of under 10 million) is projected to take in around 200,000 immigrants. Meanwhile, the United States has a population of over 300 million, and with the current administration in power, estimates for accepting legal immigrants into the country are projected to drop from 40,000 to perhaps under 30,000, according to an article Fr. Massaro published October 1, 2018 on the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church North American Forum.
Massaro does not agree with all immigration reform proposed by the left. In fact, in his presentation, he argued against the abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and he had made it clear that he does not support the idea of 100% completely open borders. Especially in the current political climate, it seems that any legitimate criticism of the current immigration policies is branded as belonging to a “fringe group” of citizens. However, as Fr. Massaro points out, when push came to shove, American citizens came together in solidarity for those who were detained, with lawyers catching the first flight to the border and offering pro bono services to the families affected.
Of course, there are some people who would support abolishing ICE, and having completely open borders, as well as those who still subscribe to the “build the wall” mantra. But Fr. Massaro’s lecture on the topic left the discussion open to have an honest dialogue between the multiple camps.
Be that as it may, as was mentioned, there are still instances where people’s basic human dignity is not being respected at the border to this day, and there will, unfortunately, be similar cases in the future. Overall, in the face of injustice, the American people seemed to have passed the moral test this time around, but there will surely be future tests that will challenge the people even further.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following Fr. Massaro’s talk, discussant Dr. Rose Perez offered a response. She spoke of her experience as a refugee from Cuba in the 1970s when she felt immigrants were welcomed by the United States. This sharply contrasts with U.S. immigration policy today. Perez mentioned she never foresaw the current animosity towards immigrants, and reluctantly conceded that attitudes and policies towards immigrants seem to be cyclical. She also spoke about her research and the trauma of children losing their homeland, which is comparable to the model of trauma for kidnapping.
Thomas Massaro, S.J., is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University. Father Massaro holds a doctorate in Christian social ethics from Emory University. His nine books and over one hundred published articles are devoted to Catholic social teaching and its recommendations for public policies oriented to social justice, peace, worker rights and poverty alleviation. A former columnist for America magazine, he writes and lectures frequently on such topics as the ethics of globalization, peacemaking, environmental concern, the role of conscience in religious participation in public life, and developing a spirituality of justice. Read more of his reflections on American immigration in his piece, “Wound at the Border.”
Randy Mehan is a current candidate in the Ethics and Society Master’s program at Fordham University.