The pastoral visit of Pope Francis to the city of Juarez on the US-Mexican border came at a providential time. The fact of an historic moment in global immigration, affecting Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Central America, and the United States simultaneously, means that the Holy Father’s words and deeds at the border will draw attention throughout the world. What he said and did will be seen and understood in a broader perspective than the United States and Mexico alone.
The visit was providential because, faced with a global crisis, democracies of East and West are having enormous difficulty thinking about, speaking about, and acting upon the crisis in a productive way. In the United States, the question of immigration policy, affecting millions within our country and thousands on our borders, has produced both powerfully held convictions and deep divisions. These, in turn, have made a rational response to the crisis virtually impossible to achieve. Politically and legally we are in gridlock, a condition which democracies often face, but which on this question seems to be a permanent condition.
In the midst of this division, in the face of debates which often lack civility, much less compassion, Pope Francis focuses on the human dimension of the immigration crisis. The human dimension involves two profound truths: the dignity of every human person and the common humanity we share as persons. These two truths, repeatedly stressed in the Holy Father’s ministry and teaching, are the heart of the human crisis of migration and immigration. But these truths, deeply human, moral, and religious in their content, exist in a world of great conflict and complexity. The immigration crisis cuts through the basic levels of our existence as a human community; the crisis is simultaneously global, national, and local.
It is a global problem because in a globalized world, market, and economy, migration will happen. In a world where ideas, resources, and interests cut across national borders each hour of every day, people also will move, either by desire and choice or from coercion and chaos. Migrations have marked human history from millennia; today they have reached historic proportions. It is a fact of life.
Immigration then becomes a national question as states must shape national policies in a globalized world. Because human lives and human dignity are at stake, it is reasonable to expect that national policies will combine secure standards of safety for states, compassion toward those often in life-threatening situations, and recognition that policies of nations like the United States will establish precedents, good or bad, for others.
National policies will become local questions because migrants and refugees will need welcome, support, and understanding at the local level. Unlike other global problems like arms control or complex financial relationships, immigration is one of those problems which engage people at the most local level of existence.
How then should this global, national, and local challenge be addressed? The Holy Father always begins with the person, with his or her dignity, with their humanity, with their needs, and with the dangers they face each day. His ministry has consistently been about reaching across boundaries and frontiers which seem impregnable, but in fact are open to human initiatives and humane policies. His pastoral visits and his constant teaching are about crossing lines. He did this with powerful consequences in his visit to the United States. So to learn from him means that the first question of immigration policy should be the identity of migrants and refugees within our country and at our borders.
How we think about them, how we speak about them, how we decide policy will all be powerfully influenced by how we see them. They can be called migrants or refugees, they can be described as Syrians or Salvadorans, they can be known as Muslims or Christians. But it is a mistake to begin in this way, and a failure of moral imagination to end this way. None of these titles, while important eventually, touch the deepest meaning of the immigration crisis. Before all else in every migrant, refugee, or family escaping danger and destitution we meet the human person, sharing our humanity, sharing our vulnerability to conditions of war, conflict, poverty, and discrimination.
Too often, our public debates about immigration focus on secondary characteristics of human identity. Religion, race, ethnicity, and nationality are important, but they are secondary to human dignity and human uniqueness. The ancient religious belief that each of us is a unique creation of God has, in our time, been reinforced by the scientific knowledge of the unique character of our DNA. We cannot ignore this truth if we are to respond from our humanity to others in danger and in need.
My hope and prayer is that Pope Francis’ visit to the US-Mexican border will help us all — of many faiths and of none — focus on dignity and humanity. We are invited, I believe, to think again deeply about our world, our country, and our convictions. Our world produces, through choice or coercion, the fact of migration. Our country must produce a policy which combines compassion and safety. Our convictions, religious and rational, are challenged and invited to use the necessary standards of compassion and effectiveness to meet this crisis of our time.