On Monday, February 4, Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life held a panel discussion titled “Beyond the Wall: Human Impacts, Moral Principles, and Policy Directions on Immigration.” The discussion focused on the Trump administration’s policies on the border and how they are affecting asylum seekers and others seeking to come to the United States, as well as Congress’s ongoing negotiations over border security funding.
The panel, moderated by the Initiative’s director John Carr, included four leading lights in the US Catholic Church on the issue of immigration—Sr. Norma Pimentel, M.J., the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley; Ashley Feasley, the director of policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs; and Fr. David Hollenbach, S.J., the Pedro Arrupe Distinguished Research Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown—as well as Galen Carey, the vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals.
The three Catholic speakers are each at the forefront of the church’s efforts to minister to the needs of migrants coming to the United States, but each represents a different approach to doing so, what one could call the three faces of the church in its ministry to migrants. Sr. Pimentel represents the church’s direct ministry to migrants. Feasley represents the church’s advocacy at the level of policy and law; and Hollenbach represents the church’s theological reflection and teaching on the rights of migrants and the common good.
In her portion of the discussion, Sr. Pimentel spoke about Catholic Charities’ efforts to assist migrants who have crossed the border or who have been in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), particularly at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. She also spoke about the experience of encountering President Donald Trump at a round table discussion in McAllen on January 10. She insisted that demands to build a border wall or keep out migrants seeking asylum are rooted in a failure to see migrants as persons and to encounter them face to face. Drawing on her experience, she explained how already-existing border barriers disrupt life in border communities such as McAllen. She also discussed how the family separation policy that made national headlines in 2018 and other efforts to restrict entry to asylum seekers have negatively impacted the migrants seeking assistance with Catholic Charities.
Although the Catholic Church’s ministry to migrants begins with face-to-face encounter and direct assistance, it also recognizes that we need immigration policies that both respect the rights of migrants and promote the common good. For that reason, for many decades the Catholic Church in the United States has engaged in advocacy work at the national and state levels to promote more just immigration policies. During the panel, Feasley, who heads the USCCB’s office devoted to this advocacy in Washington, DC, explained the USCCB’s stance in the ongoing negotiations over the budget for border security. Feasley argued that the Catholic Church is not in favor of “open borders,” since it supports “humane, just, transparent” immigration enforcement and improved security technology at ports of entry to prevent drug smuggling and other criminal activity, for example. At the same time, the nation’s border policy must include hiring more immigration judges to help ease the backlog of asylum cases, and more humane treatment of detained asylum seekers.
Feasley also spoke to the necessity of policies that will address the root causes of contemporary migration to the United States, most notably increased economic opportunity and security in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. She did, however, warn about efforts to tie assistance to those countries with efforts to keep asylum seekers in Mexico rather than allowing them to remain in the United States while their cases are being processed, or for other restrictions on migrants seeking asylum in the United States. This focus on the root causes of migration illustrates how the church’s advocacy by necessity takes a global perspective.
Fr. Hollenbach also took a global perspective, in his case looking to Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris to support the idea that “the human family reaches across borders.” Although we have specific obligations to our fellow citizens, we also have obligations to members of the human family seeking refuge or fleeing poverty. Immigration policies must serve the common good, but understood not only in terms of national interests, but also taking a global perspective that includes the rights of all people.
Fr. Hollenbach’s contributions to the panel represent the third face of the church’s ministry to migrants: theological reflection on the experience of migrants that draws on the church’s teaching on the nature of the human person. Hollenbach is one of the leading scholars of Catholic social teaching in the United States, and since the 2000s much of his work has focused on the rights of migrants and refugees. The work of theologians like Hollenbach and the church’s official social teaching grows out of the direct action of individuals such as Sr. Pimentel and the advocacy work of those who like Feasley and the USCCB seek to shape immigration policy, but it also provides that work with a foundation and helps root it in the Gospel. Theology helps provide a language to communicate the reasons for the church’s care and concern for immigrants and their rights.
Georgetown’s “Beyond the Wall” event provided an opportunity for leading scholars and advocates to offer a Christian perspective on the humanitarian crisis on the border, but is also illustrated how the church’s ministry to migrants takes on three faces: direct action: public policy advocacy; and theological reflection. These three faces reflect different aspects of how the church relates to the world, but all are rooted in the church’s identity as a sacramental presence of the Kingdom of God in the world.