WASHINGTON, D.C. — The debate over immigrants and refugees and policies affecting them that has roiled Washington and much of the nation took on a human face and voice during a March 20 panel discussion at Georgetown University.
“I am undocumented, and I am unafraid,” said Luis Gonzalez, a 20-year-old student at Georgetown, who spoke as part of a panel sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life on “Refugees and Immigrants: Welcoming the Stranger in Tough Times.”
Gonzalez was joined by a retired Catholic bishop from a border diocese in New Mexico, a former Somalian refugee who now directs a resettlement program in Utah, the leader of a conservative Hispanic group who supports the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and an official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who works on immigration policy issues.
The Georgetown student said the immigration issue is one that he faces “day to day, hour to hour… I can’t live my daily life without thinking about immigration.”
He was born in Mexico and moved to the United States at the age of 8, joining his parents who had immigrated earlier in search of a better life. Later seeing his mother support her children as a single parent, coming home after working long hours as a dishwasher “pushed me forward…to be the best person I could be,” he said.
But he said the current climate in the country – which some critics say has been sparked by President Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement – has left his mother fearful to go to the park or to the store.
Gonzalez said he is unafraid, “because I have people supporting me,” and he praised Georgetown for its support of undocumented students, along with agencies like Catholic Charities that offer legal services.
“I have a philosophy. You can change hearts of people by sharing your story,” said Gonzalez. “I encourage each of you to have an open mind and an open heart.”
Bishop Ricardo Ramírez, the bishop emeritus of Las Cruces, New Mexico, noted his mother was born in Mexico, and he pointed out that in his diocese, the green and white trucks of the border patrol are a familiar sight.
Immigration, he said, “has been an issue all my life. It’s been on my mind and heart all these years,” he said, adding that deportation or the fear of it affects many immigrants and their families.
Aden Batar, a Muslim refugee from Somalia who now serves as the immigration and refugee resettlement director for Catholic Community Services of Salt Lake City, said he was forced to flee his country after losing many family members at a time of civil war and instability.
Noting that refugees are people driven from their countries who take whatever journey they can – by road or boat – to save their lives, Batar said he crossed the border and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya. After going through the extensive vetting program required for refugees, Batar in 1994 resettled in Utah, where he had a relative. “I just wanted to go to a safe place, raise my family and have a home,” he said.
After being helped by Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, for the past two decades Batar has worked for that agency, helping refugees like he once was resettle and become self-sufficient, contributing members of society.
“They’re survivors. I’m a survivor,” he said.
The former refugee added, “I don’t think I can ever pay back what I received from the community that welcomed me.”
Alfonso Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, noted that he was born and raised in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, with family roots in Italy and Costa Rica, and the promise of “America as a beacon of hope and freedom” has been a constant in his life.
As the director of the Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush, Aguilar said he had the privilege of administering the oath of allegiance to thousands of immigrants across the United States, who had come from all over the world.
“When immigrants take that oath, they make the country more, not less, America,” he said.
Another panelist, Ashley Feasley, serves as the director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said her interest in the issue was fostered during her childhood, when a boy whose family fled Communist Lithuania became her classmate and has remained her friend.
Migration and Refugee Services, working with Catholic Charities and other affiliated agencies across the country, helped 23,000 of the 85,000 refugees who resettled in the United States last year.
“As a church, we should be providing welcome, support and solidarity when possible,” Feasley said, encouraging Catholics to contact their lawmakers in Congress in support of humane immigration policies.
John Carr, the initiative’s director, spoke about the human dimension of the refugee and immigration issue at his own parish – St. Ambrose in Cheverly, Maryland, where parishioners recently met downstairs to discuss hosting a refugee family, while upstairs in the church, a Spanish Mass was being held for immigrant parishioners.
He asked the bishop on the panel to reflect on the discussion’s theme – the biblical call to welcome the stranger.
“Moses and his people were migrants. They fled Egypt and went to the Promised Land,” said Ramírez, who added, “Jesus was the most famous, and the greatest of all migrants… The Holy Family was a migrant family. They had to go to Egypt in exile.”
The bishop noted that Jesus “was always crossing the border, (ultimately) from death to resurrection to glory.”
Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 demonstrate that serving the poor and welcoming strangers should be a preferential option for his followers, Ramírez said, adding, “We’re talking about people, human beings, people born in the image and likeness of God, with a dignity that must be respected. That’s the basis for all Catholic social teaching.”
That was underscored in opening remarks by Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan, the president emeritus of Georgetown University who is the interim executive director for Jesuit Refugee Services, which serves refugees in more than 45 countries.
The priest expressed regret that, in his view, Trump through his rhetoric and proposed policies has used “immigration as a way of dividing us and moving people to his side.”
O’Donovan added, “The eyes of faith in a crucified Christ, can see Christ in a refugee, and a refugee in Christ.”
The Jesuit also said he regretted the walls built in Berlin and Israel to separate people, and the wall that the new president proposes to build along the U.S. border with Mexico as a security measure to block the flow of illegal immigration.
Aguilar, who is a Republican, said he supported Trump’s executive order that would impose a travel ban on people entering the United States from six predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily stop the entry of refugees for 120 days. Court actions have blocked the implementation of that revised order. Trump has said the order is aimed at protecting Americans by preventing terrorist attacks on the country.
“We do have to address the issue of security,” Aguilar said.
The issue of immigration “has been oversimplified, and used by both parties,” he said, adding that Trump is not proposing mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants.
“Donald Trump says he wants to remove people with criminal records,” Aguilar said, adding that President Obama’s administration also cracked down on illegal immigrants. From 2009 to 2015, more than 2.5 million immigrants were deported from the United States.
Feasley said Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement has made many immigrants fearful, and that government raids since then have also netted some people not guilty of serious crimes.
Gonzalez spoke about the impact of Trump’s rhetoric and policies on the general population. “We have people who have become fearful of someone like me, someone who’s a refugee from Syria or Somalia,” he said.
Batar said refugees who have gone through the United States’s two-year long vetting program would end up being stranded in camps if the refugee ban goes into effect for four months. “Last week I had to lay off 10 staff (members) because of the executive order,” he added.
Refugees “are the most screened human beings coming into our country,” said Batar. “They are our neighbors. Their children go to school with our children… Whatever fear out there is unfounded. We need to help refugees now more than ever.”
In closing comments, Ramírez returned to a point he had made earlier, that migrants entering the country aren’t killers, but drugs crossing the border are the real killers, fueled by “the insatiable demand in our country for drugs.” He said he sees hope, though, in the way Catholic communities welcome newcomers.
Feasley expressed hope for immigration reform that “doesn’t compromise our values but also keeps us safe and secure.” She had earlier emphasized the need to address the root causes of why people flee their homelands, and pointed to how Catholic Relief Services promotes development programs in the countries it serves.
Aguilar said the country must recognize the important contributions that immigrant workers make to the economy, often filling jobs that others won’t do, and he said the U.S. should expand its guest worker program. He also voiced support for immigration reform.
“I am optimistic. I believe we will eventually achieve immigration reform,” he said. “There are many legitimate disagreements, but I believe if we come together, we can reach consensus.”
Gonzalez, who is majoring in American studies at Georgetown, again stressed the need to “see the humanity in people.
“After I graduate from Georgetown University, I want to go back to my community and be a teacher. I want to make a difference,” he said.