November/December 2016
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November/December 2016
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Immigration as a Pastoral Issue

By Paul Masson, M.M.

I served for 10 years in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, before being elected to the governing General Council of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in the fall of 2008. Although I now work half a continent away from those with whom I was privileged to share my life and work on both sides of that border, they retain a special place in my heart. As I was leaving the border, two incidents affecting people I knew epitomize the ongoing tragedy on our southern border.

The first event involved a young couple who lived in the neighborhood of one of our chapels in Juárez. Their second child was born in El Paso, where the father had found work. The baby girl was born with a serious brain problem and without the level of care the baby was getting in El Paso, she would die. While there was no way that the young couple could get a work permit to live legally in El Paso, there was also no way they were going to do anything but stay if at all possible for their daughter.

The other incident—or more accurately, tragedy—happened the day before I flew back East. In the airport I picked up the Juárez newspaper and was shocked to see that a reporter for the newspaper had been murdered in his car while taking his daughter to school. His beat had been covering crime in Juárez, one of the most violent cities in the world. His wife was a reporter for the diocesan paper and we had just finished an interview.

My job now takes me to Maryknoll missions around the world, from Asia to Africa to South America, yet those two events remain with me. The one highlights the failure of our immigration policy that refuses to recognize the need for and contributions of these workers whom we label "illegal" and the difficulties immigration poses for their families.

The other—the killing of journalist Armando Rodriguez, who covered crime and the cartels for El Diario de Juárez—symbolizes the violence that has overtaken the border area, a violence fueled by the trafficking of guns, drugs and people. I witnessed murders by the ruthless drug traffickers on the street I lived on in Juárez, and I lost personal friends to this violence, some as innocent bystanders and others in the line of duty as police officers.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the joint pastoral letter of the U.S. and Mexican bishops conferences, "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope." In their letter, the bishops called for a pastoral approach to immigration and listed a series of "rights and obligations" around immigration that are based on Catholic Social Teaching. These included the "right of sovereign nations to control their borders," but also recognized the right of people to find opportunities in their homeland and to migrate if necessary to support themselves and their families. While refugees and asylum seekers are to be afforded protection, the dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants also has to be respected.

This document called for a "properly constructed worker program [that] would reduce the number of undocumented persons migrating from Mexico to the United States," and decried the thousands of lives lost as people are pushed into more desolate and deadly areas of the desert in an effort to cross or are tricked and abandoned by human smugglers known as coyotes. Since then the deaths of men, women and children have only increased. Since 2003, the "Arizona Recovered Bodies Project" has reported the discovery of 1,962 bodies in Arizona, alone. In the past year, this group reported 179 deaths.

Immigration is a worldwide phenomenon and  Maryknoll missioners throughout the world are involved in programs that help migrants. Yet, as of this writing, in our own homeland our nation has failed. Now, with the recent presidential election behind us, we see the signs of a new bipartisan will to tackle immigration.

After the election, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, issued a statement asking the president and Congress to "seize the moment" to fashion an agreement on immigration.

"We have witnessed the family separation, exploitation and the loss of life caused by the current system," Archbishop Gomez said. "Millions of persons remain in the shadows, without legal protection and marginalized from society. As a moral matter, this suffering must end."

Having witnessed firsthand the effects of our failed immigration policy, I couldn't agree more. For me, it's still a pastoral issue.