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Immigration responses ‘bellwethers’ for community and country health, El Paso bishop says

Relatives of Jose Pedro Rivera Garcia, a victim of a fire at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, react during his funeral Mass in Nueva Trinidad, El Salvador April 10, 2023. Garcia was one of at least 39 people at the immigration detention center on the U.S. border died in the fire that broke out at the facility overnight March 28, according to a statement issued by the center. (OSV News photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Responses to immigration issues are “bellwethers” for the health of communities and the country, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said April 24 at a panel on human dignity and the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

At an event hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, immigration advocates examined the responses and responsibilities of the church at the border.

“I think these issues are bellwethers in a certain way, about the health of our communities, about the health of our country, about our health as people of faith — right? — especially Christians because our teaching is so clear,” said Bishop Seitz, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

The number of migrants apprehended monthly by U.S. immigration authorities after crossing the Mexican border without legal status increased by 25% in March, according to U.S. Border Patrol data. The issue has become increasingly partisan as well, with former President Donald Trump, as a key part of his 2024 campaign, accusing President Joe Biden of lax immigration policy.

But Biden, a Democrat and Catholic who pledged a more humanitarian approach to immigration as a candidate for president, has been criticized by some immigration activists for a mixed record on the issue, including a rule blocking asylum-seekers who do not first seek asylum in another country.

Bishop Seitz said that for Catholic Americans, both church teaching and U.S. founding documents are “so clear” on the issue of immigration.

“In our Declaration of Independence, we have such a beautiful statement about all people being created equal and being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Bishop Seitz said. “We all know those lines, right? But there’s a dirty little secret about the way that we have failed as a nation to really adopt that statement.”

Bishop Seitz said, “When we fail to recognize the dignity of one, we fail to recognize all of our human dignity.”

Ligia Gomez, who is seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing political persecution in Nicaragua, is now an advocate for others who have recently migrated to the U.S. Gomez told attendees in Spanish about her own asylum journey, and, according to a translation of her remarks, said that her wait has stretched more than four years.

“Being in migratory limbo is not life. It increases our trauma,” Gomez said.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s regime has been accused by U.S. lawmakers of anti-Catholic persecution, targeting church leaders and others who have criticized his government. Among political prisoners in that country is Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who was sentenced in February to 26 years in prison for his criticism of the government.

Bishop Seitz said that circumstances behind an asylum-seeker’s journey need to be considered as part of a policy approach. He stressed that while the church holds a human right to migration, it also holds a right to stability.

“Immigration will not be fixed by simply stopping people and/or sending them back,” he said. “Immigration issues will be allowed to become a more orderly, normal human process if we deal with the root causes of them in the sending countries, and if we and this country begin to see immigrants as not a threat, but rather as people who are in need, people who deserve our assistance because of their human struggle.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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