zero tolerance and faith

The current immigration situation has my heart and my mind in a flurry. I can’t seem to set media aside because I just have to know what will happen next, and in my quest for more information I keep getting derailed.

Take a breath, say a prayer, re-engage, rest, repeat.

But immigration is not new. For years, people have been crossing our Southern border in the hopes of finding a better life. I’ve been witness to the stories of those people for a few of those years, hearing about their struggles and trying to comprehend the reasons people choose to leave home for hope in something full of uncertainty.

I can’t think of one time in my life that I’ve been willing to give up everything for the unknown. I haven’t even quit a job without having another one ready in the wings. It takes courage to leave home like that. Courage and necessity, and sometimes desperation.

One women I met left her family in Southern Mexico because she was being targeted by gang violence. Her husband had died (at the hands of this gang) and she was certain she was next. Afraid to submit her babies to the rigors of the journey, she placed them safely with an aunt and began her trek. It was her life or the journey. If she were to have hope in a future with her children, she had to leave.

Another woman I met was deported after years of living in the United States. Her children, all United States citizens, were with their father, but she was stuck in Nogales, separated from them and from her babies. She told us her children came to Mexico for a few months in the hopes of reuniting the family, but realized rather quickly that to stay in Mexico was to intentionally choose a life of poverty and lack of opportunity. They went back to the U.S. so they could receive an education, in pain at being separated from their mother, but hoping she would find a way to cross the border and be with them once again. As a note, she said to legally immigrate in her situation would take up to 10 years and by then, her babies would no longer be babies, so she was willing to try anything she could to get to them as quickly as possible.

The cry for immigrants has rallied recently. Generally because of the Zero Tolerance policy, and specifically because under this policy, children were being immediately separated from their parents. So many people have written about the reasons that separating children from their parents is awful and damaging so I won’t add anything here. I shouldn’t need to.

But I’m still worried about Zero Tolerance. Zero Tolerance means we stop looking at people as people and judge them solely on a single action. Step foot in my country, get caught, say good-bye to your family. Or, now with the Executive Order signed on June 20, 2018, set foot in my country, get caught, get sent indefinitely to a family detention center. No chance to explain why the choice was made to cross in the first place. No chance to plea your case. Instead, you are immediately incarcerated.

Zero Tolerance means we start viewing people as animals or things, which, in the Catholic faith, is unconscionable.

Throughout the bible, the idea of hospitality is emphasized so many times, you’d think it was important, like, you know…love. It is emphasized so often that if hospitality was not extended to people in need, Jesus got serious.

Here in America, we love to achieve, we love our stuff, and we love our freedom. These are all amazing things, not to be disparaged, unless they keep us from following Christ and taking care of those around us. As St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus asks the Rich Man to sell what he has and give to the poor, only then can he enter the kingdom of heaven. Many theologians agree that the man’s wealth was not the thing keeping the Rich Man from heaven, but his attachment to that wealth was. This story is about more than attachment, though. It is also about hospitality. Jesus doesn’t just say, “sell what you have,” he also says, “and give to the poor”. Not only do we have to give up what we’re attached to, but we also need to find a way to turn that very attachment around and, instead of being self-serving, allow for hospitality.

I’m left with a single question about the current immigrant situation — why, exactly, do we not want more people in America. What are we afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

It might be worth taking a minute to think about exactly what it is that scares us about immigration. Are we afraid of losing our power? Our wealth? Our privilege?

For almost every fear we have, when you look at the individual people, the fear dissipates.

Keeping all immigrants out because a few turn out to be criminals is like your employer firing you because your third cousin twice removed stole some money.

Keeping people in prison for attempting to escape death in their own country is like, well, I can’t even think of anything it is rationally like, it is so awful to consider.

A country has a right to protect its borders.

An individual also has a right to migrate.

There is no simple answer, there probably never will be, I only ask that, as we’re working towards finding an answer that works for the people in this country, we remember that the “immigration issue” is only and always about people. People who live and breathe, work and love, and are so desperate to be here, they’d cross a desert in 100 degree heat just to set foot in the promised land.

If we want to keep our hearts and our souls in tact, we have an obligation to treat these people as God’s children, not because we think we should, but because they are loved by God. Every single one.


For some more reading from the Catholic Church on considering immigration through the lens of our Catholic faith:

Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples

Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity written by the United States Catholic Conference

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