Jesus told us that whatever we do or fail to do to the least of His brothers and sisters, He takes personally, and that our eternal destiny depends on it (Mt 25:31-46).
To the righteous who will enter the kingdom of His Father, He will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed Me.”
To those who will inherit “an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” He will state with great sadness, “I was a stranger and you gave Me no welcome.”
His message is clear: either we care for strangers — refugees, immigrants, internally-displaced, those on the move — like we would care for Him, or we go to hell.
There are lots of important issues — humanitarian, security, economic, cultural, familial, political, geopolitical, ethical — involved in comprehensive immigration reform. The immigration system is clearly broken and presently incentivizing behaviors that make millions vulnerable to death, violence, theft, human trafficking, and indignities too numerous or ugly to name.
Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House have failed for decades to come up with a solution, mainly because they know that the public is divided and that therefore they will suffer politically no matter what the outcome.
Even though there is plenty of room for compromise between, on the one hand, the xenophobia of closed borders and low and slow legal immigration quotas, and, on the other, the naïve insecurity and unfairness of open borders fostering illegal immigration, few politicians have shown the wisdom and guts to forge an imperfect compromise that most citizens would accept as far better than the inhumane chaos we presently have.
Few citizens, however, have stepped up on election day to demand those who will fight for a better system that integrates the legitimate concerns that people on various sides have for a system that’s fair, safe, predictable, ordered, humane and generous. Instead, we’ve been left with those on both left and right who are manipulating the issue for political virtue-signaling and short-term advantage.
The latest example of this grandstanding concerns politicians’ trying to pass the buck of responsibility to other jurisdictions, treating persons as pawns in a political chess match and moving them in buses or planes from one place to the next. As a political maneuver, such stunts highlight some of the inequities in the immigration burden-sharing and put the pressure on politicians and citizens who expatiate from afar without having to roll up their sleeves.
Most of those who have made harrowing journeys to the border, if offered — even with minimal and sometimes misleading information — free transportation to places like the nation’s capital, New York, Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, or elsewhere, understandably seize it, because they intuitively know that they have a better chance for jobs and a shot at the American dream in places with far fewer fellow border-crossers than places already inundated with daily tsunamis of newcomers.
Yet the immigrants are not being transported because those footing the bill believe it’s in the immigrants’ best interest. They’re being used to score political points. Such utilitarianism is a subtle form of dehumanization, one that Jesus warned about, when those sent to hell protested that they had never encountered Jesus Himself as an immigrant and failed to welcome Him. Such objectification of highly vulnerable human beings is something that all Catholics, regardless of legitimate disagreements on aspects of the immigration reform needed, should oppose.
Christians forming their opinion on immigration should always keep in mind Jesus’ personalization of the issue. Together with Mary and Joseph, Jesus Himself was an exile as a child. The Israelites were themselves all once exiles, which God through the prophets never ceased to remind them. In a similar way, God could remind every American (except Native Americans) that they were once immigrants, too. We should seek to treat those who are fleeing poverty and lawlessness the way we would treat Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the way we would treat family members, the way we would hope to be treated if we ourselves had been born in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba or in a situation of endemic poverty and corruption. Immigration isn’t exempt from the golden rule.
When the 50 immigrants from Venezuela ended up on Martha’s Vineyard on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the drama of Matthew 25 was put on display. Some immediately sought to care for those strangers who were hungry, thirsty, sick, inadequately vested, in need of a place to stay as well as human concern and solidarity. These first responders deserve our praise and gratitude. Some others, as we know, did nothing or responded selfishly; hopefully their conscience is convincing them that God calls them to a higher standard.
Likewise, when the refugees were moved from the Vineyard to the Joint Base Cape Cod, many others stepped up to the plate to care, including staff of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Fall River and scores of volunteers. More help will be needed, especially those who can help provide jobs so that the immigrants and their families will be able to be support themselves and their families back home, which is why they made the treacherous seven-country journey to the United States in the first place. It’s a time for Catholics to show they’re Catholics.
If Jesus Himself were on the Joint Base, most of His followers would spring into action. He told us in Matthew’s Gospel, however, that, essentially, He is.
And insofar as the political showmanship of this crisis will likely continue unabated, it’s likely that many more planes and buses will be arriving.
It’s time for each of us, and all of us, to do what we can to treat them as human persons for whom Jesus died, and as Pope Francis has repeatedly urged, to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them, with all the gifts God has given them.