The caricature that the bishops are only concerned about sex has been fed by their focus on abortion, gay marriage, and birth control, but when it comes to immigration, the bishops show not only their concern for the poor but their clear attention to the root causes of the crisis. This has been especially true of the thousands of children who are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by an adult.
Immigration has become a political football in Washington, where the focus is not on fixing the problem but on how to maximize the political benefits of partisan posturing.
Republican candidates play to their right-wing base, especially in primary elections. If they had their way, they would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that would match the wall between Israel and Palestine. Plus, they would not be happy until guards were shoulder-to-shoulder along the entire border.
As for children crossing the border, Republicans blame President Barack Obama, who is encouraging child immigrants by stopping the deportation of "dreamers," children whose parents brought them into this country. Republicans' solution is to put the children on the first plane back to their home countries, no matter what they face on arrival.
Meanwhile, Democrats woo Hispanics with unfulfilled promises of immigration reform. Although the president has used his executive authority to help some immigrants, he has also deported more immigrants than any previous president, earning him the title "deporter in chief." In addition, shootings and abuse of immigrants by some border control personnel is a scandal that needs to controlled.
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Compared with American politicians, the U.S. bishops are models of compassion and competence, as seen in the programs run by the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services, the largest refugee resettlement agency in the world. The help is very concrete and practical.
For example, MRS has 12 Unaccompanied Refugee Minor foster care programs that provide transitional care for children until they can be released to their families as well as long-term foster care for children without an adult sponsor. Most of the children are reunited with their families, while the others are placed in foster family homes.
While Republicans blame Obama for the flood of children at the border, the bishops see multiple interrelated factors contributing to the crisis.
According to MRS, "Some of these factors include: a lack of strong social institutions and civil society support, abuse in the family stemming from pressure on family units due to violence and family separation, a lack of viable economic and educational opportunities, and environmental factors affecting crop production."
But according to a delegation of bishops that visited Central America in November, "one overriding factor has played a decisive and forceful role in recent years: generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness."
Only children whose lives are already in danger would risk their lives traveling the treacherous route from Central America through Mexico to the United States. Many of these children have been threatened by gangs, who say, "Join us or die." Better to risk their lives trying to join a family member in the United States than to live in peril in their own country.
The Republicans actually are half right. American policies are partly responsible for the influx of immigrants to our borders, but not the policies to which they point.
What has caused the explosion of violence in Central America is primarily the drug trade, which feeds our insatiable appetite for drugs. Republicans, who tout the benefits of the marketplace, should understand that until we reduce demand for drugs in the U.S., the drug trade with all its violence will continue to push Central Americans to flee violence for the U.S. Until demand is reduced, criminals will continue to supply us.
For example, if a small percentage of the money devoted to border control were put into drug treatment programs, we would get better results. It is a scandal that those who want to enter treatment programs often have to wait months for an opening.
The United States has also contributed to the problem by deporting gang members to Central America, where they use skills developed in Los Angeles to organize gangs in their home countries. An unintended consequence of needed sentencing reforms will be the deportation of more gang members as soon as they are released from jail.
We also do very little to stop the southward flow of weapons from the United States that arm gangs in Mexico and Central America. If similar weapons were flowing to terrorists in the U.S., we would invade these countries.
Finally, in the eyes of most Central American bishops, the free trade agreements foisted on their countries by the United States have also contributed to the problem by forcing subsistence farmers off their lands to join the unemployed masses in the cities. They could not compete with American agribusiness with its government subsidies. With no programs to help these peasants transition to other jobs, they were left to the Darwinian forces of the market. This is the ugly side of globalization so criticized by Pope Francis.
Why are we surprised that people without other options risk everything to reach our borders when we would do the same? In fact, our Irish, Italian and other European ancestors did exactly that when they came to America and were met by nativist prejudice.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]