(OSV News) — As the Catholic Church in the U.S. marks National Migration Week Sept. 18-24, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, highlighted the need to “address the coercive forces driving people to migrate.”
While often used interchangeably, the terms “migrant” and “refugee” are separately defined under international law, with refugees specifically protected due to perilous conditions — such as war or persecution — that make returning to the country of origin impossible. In contrast, no uniform definitions of “migrant” or “forced migration” exist at the international level, according to the United Nations, although migrants are nonetheless protected as human persons under international human rights law.
In his message prepared for the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees observed Sept. 24, Pope Francis reflected that “the decision to migrate should always be free, yet in many cases, even in our day, it is not.
“Conflicts, natural disasters, or more simply the impossibility of living a dignified and prosperous life in one’s native land is forcing millions of persons to leave,” said the pope. “Migrants flee because of poverty, fear or desperation. Eliminating these causes and thus putting an end to forced migration calls for shared commitment on the part of all, in accordance with the responsibilities of each.”
Those insights were echoed by Bishop Seitz in a Sept. 15 statement released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ahead of National Migration Week.
“Through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are compelled to respond with charity toward those who must uproot their lives in search of refuge,” Bishop Seitz said. He added that “efforts to manage migration — even when predicated on the common good — require that we also address the coercive forces driving people to migrate.”
“For millennia, people have been forced to flee their homelands, seeking safety and security, because of factors beyond their control,” Bishop Seitz said. “Pope Francis reminds us that Sacred Scripture reveals the Holy Family’s own flight into Egypt was not the result of a free decision, nor were many of the migrations that marked the history of the people of Israel.”
Bishop Seitz said, “Only through collective efforts to alleviate these (coercive) forces and by establishing the conditions required for integral human development can people truly avail themselves of the right to remain in their country of birth.
“May God, through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sustain us in these pursuits and protect those whose lives depend upon their success,” said Bishop Seitz.
In their 2000 pastoral letter “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” the U.S. bishops pointed to Catholic social teaching on migration, which balances both the needs of migrants and the concerns of the nations to which they relocate.
The three principles of that teaching hold first, that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families; second, a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration; and third, a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
The bishops of the U.S. and Mexico issued a 2003 joint pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” stating, “All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.”
The bishops also declared in the letter that “migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.”
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Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.