This week, I was asked to speak at an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Oxford, co-sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall. Its theme was “Migration, Faith, and Action: Shifting the Discourse.”
The gathering was an enlightening and internationally diverse event focused on the intersection of academic, advocacy/policy, and faith-based approaches to issues of global immigration. I presented on the ecclesiological dimensions of the issue in the American and British contexts.
I found a few of the lectures and panels regarding Argentina especially intriguing because of Bergoglio/Francis’s prioritizing of migrants while there and now. However, to me, the highlight was a plenary session on the women known as “Las Patronas,” with a speech in Spanish by one of these Mexican women, Norma Romero Vasquez, flown there to address us.
She represented a group of humble Catholic women, awarded the 2013 Human Rights National Award, who began a simple ministry, deeply rooted in their faith, in which they prepare food and clean bottled water, and throw pre-made packages to the passing trains of migrants coming through Mexico from points further south – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. These travelers often ride on the roofs of trains, exposed to the elements, and with virtually no food and water for as long as 20 days, sometimes with young children.
In the beginning, the women did not know much of the background and certainly not the socio-economic “push-pull” factors involved in all of this. They simply saw suffering people and wanted to help.
This trek northward, impelled by extreme poverty and violence in their homelands, is a complicated and tragic tale of pain, discrimination and abiding hope for a better life. The rate of sexual abuse of migrants on this journey is simply staggering: an estimated 70 percent of females regardless of age are raped somewhere along the way, and usually not merely by one person.
Migrants of both sexes are attacked, conned, robbed of any belongings they attempt to bring with them (there are only so many places to hide money and possessions and the “coyotes,” or smugglers, know them all). Corrupt individuals within the police forces along the trails north to the border are often in collusion with the traffickers and exploit the powerless travelers.
As the pope made clear with his visit to Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, an island ravaged by similar problems, anyone with religious or humanistic tendencies cannot defend a culture of indifference which allows such “shameful” atrocities to take place as if they were not our concern.
As the conference made clear, there are many discussions about people on the move – some say the number world-wide is in the billions, not millions. Terms and categories abound: immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, displaced peoples, “illegals,” undocumented. Sometimes such classifications and distinctions are helpful. However, first and foremost, each of these fleeing or arriving groups is made up of people. And Catholic social teaching makes clear that every human person, born or unborn, baptized or not, with a passport or without one, deserves dignity and respect as a brother or sister made in the image of God and reflecting a relationship (even if unconscious) with the Incarnate Logos “from whom all good things come.”
If we reflect seriously and without short-sightedness or protected interests, we see that migration is deeply interwoven within our own story, not only as Americans, but also as Christians. Abraham, Moses, the wandering Israelites, Ruth, Joseph (both of them), the Holy Family, Paul, the early apostles and later missionaries: None were told to stay happily and quietly in the area of their birth. Put simply, in every stage of our salvation history, God speaks and acts through migrants. To deny this is to deny the Judeo-Christian narrative almost in its entirety.
I understand the complexity of the issue and do not seek to simplify it. Theology must interact with many other spheres to address immigration competently and convincingly: law, sociology, economics, politics, anthropology. Each has its role in this conversation. And yet, we must remind ourselves again and again, as Las Patronas make clear every day in their own way, the duty to help those in need or recognize the humanity of another can never be swept away by counter-arguments.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.