Migrant caravan: How do we to respond?

Photographs and video footage showing thousands of Central Americans walking along highways, heading north through Mexico and destined for the United States, have elicited a lot of opinions in recent days. Many of those opinions shared in news reports and on social media have been cruel and inhumane.

Make no mistake. What is described as a caravan of migrants, made up of an estimated 7,000 people, should be a cause of concern to all. However, the way we express our concern should be guided by our Christian beliefs and Catholic social teaching.

According to a Catholic News Service report, the caravan left Honduras on Oct. 13.

“Catholics working with migrants describe the caravan as the response to a desperate situation in Central America’s northern triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as poverty, violence and drought push people to risk the treacherous road through Mexico,” according to the CNS report. “Political unrest and the persecution of anti-government protesters in Nicaragua have sent even more people fleeing with some joining in the caravan.”

Reaction by U.S. political leaders to the caravan of refugees has been more of suspicion than concern, with President Donald Trump calling it “an assault on our country” and ordering military troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In an interview with America Magazine, Kristin Heyer, a theology professor at Boston College, said two principles of Catholic social teaching are evident in the caravan: the right to migrate and the right of sovereign nations to control their borders.

“The right to state sovereignty is relativized by the (Catholic social teaching) tradition’s primary commitment to protecting human dignity,” she told America. “Whereas limits may be set, the tradition emphasizes that powerful nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migrant flows and that the right to asylum must not be denied when people’s lives are genuinely threatened in their homeland.”

This brings us to the question of why thousands of people risk their lives to walk thousands of miles. These residents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras face some of the world’s highest murder rates, said Heyer, which are linked to drug trafficking, organized crime and poverty.

A long-term solution to these problems is needed, one like Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has proposed. He believes Mexico, Canada and the United States can work together to develop poor areas in Central America and southern Mexico. “In this way, we confront the phenomenon of migration, because he who leaves his town does not leave for pleasure, but out of necessity,” he said Oct. 21.

Obrador’s proposal is similar to one the U.S. bishops, as well as the presidents of Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services have urged. In a joint statement Oct. 29 they wrote: “We strongly advocate for continued U.S. investments to address the underlying causes of violence and lack of opportunity in Central America. Our presence throughout the Americas has convinced us that migration is a regional issue that requires a comprehensive, regional solution. An enforcement-only approach does not address nor solve the larger root causes that cause people to flee their countries in search of protection.”

Developing a solution with the care of migrants in mind is surely challenging. However, when they are demonized and painted as a threat to our nation, a real solution can never begin to take shape.

The harsh reactions to the migrant caravan bring to mind a video that was featured at last week’s Discipleship Formation Seminar in Green Bay, which was attended by more than 700 parish leaders. The video, created by the Cleveland Clinic, depicts hospital workers, patients and family members on a typical day at a hospital. Words on the screen describe each person’s challenges, such as “Wife had a stroke. Worried how he will take care of her.”

The video concludes with a message, “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes. Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?”

This is the attitude we as Catholic Christians are called to take, whether it’s with a neighbor, a stranger or a Central American refugee.