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World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018

January 7, 2018
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

The mystery of the Cross already casts its shadow even as we are concluding the Christmas Season. Very soon after the birth of Jesus, Joseph was forced to flee with his young family because of the murderous threats of King Herod. The Holy Family made the treacherous journey to Egypt as migrants who sought asylum in a foreign land where they remained until it was safe for them to return (Mt 2:13-15).

The story of the Holy Family, the Chosen People, the experience of the Church and the history of our nation share this similar characteristic: we have been a people on the move, often finding ourselves strangers in a foreign land, a pilgrim people.

Our immigrant heritage is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our American experience and identity.

In recent years, however, the sheer volume of undocumented immigrants and our response to this phenomenon have become some of the most challenging and divisive issues of our age. We are being challenged to deal with this situation in a way that is both just and compassionate. But, immigration and the migration of peoples are not unique to the American experience.

Migration is a global phenomenon. On every continent people are on the move. Sometimes migrants voluntarily leave their homelands in search of new opportunities and better futures, like many of our ancestors who came to America. Often, however, they are forced to flee because they have been displaced by natural disasters, war, religious persecution, political oppression and grinding poverty. Unfortunately, the very real challenges stemming from these massive movements of peoples are frequently viewed primarily as political concerns rather than from the perspectives of human solidarity and the Gospel.

We easily lose sight of the human face of these migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In Pope Francis’ message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which will be observed on Sunday, Jan. 14, he writes, “Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Mt 25:35-43). The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future.”

One of the most disturbing by-products of this massive movement of peoples is the phenomenon of human trafficking. Sometimes as the result of abduction and kidnapping, persons are sold into slavery as prostitutes, become the chattel of pornographers and smugglers or are forced to work in sweatshops with no hope of obtaining their freedom. Children are kidnapped, bought and sold to unsuspecting adoptive parents by traffickers posing as adoption agents.

Very often people who are desperate to migrate to find work or to rejoin their families become the targets of traffickers or “coyotes” who exploit them through extortion and often abandon them to their deaths in deserts, at sea or in other hostile environments. Sadly, the most vulnerable targets and victims of human trafficking are women and children.

When we consider the dignity of each of these persons and the tremendous human potential they bring for contributing to the common good, it is incumbent upon us as Catholics and as Americans to work for a just and comprehensive reform of our immigration system.

It certainly is necessary to secure and protect our borders from hostile intruders and illegal access. But, it is not enough. It also is in our best interest to provide adequate means of legal access for those migrants who seek to work jobs that cannot otherwise be filled or to be reunited with family members who are already here legally.

It is in everyone’s best interest that these migrants and refugees be welcomed with respect, protected from exploitation, that their dignity be safeguarded and promoted so that they may achieve their full human potential, and that they be fully integrated into society rather than left to dwell in the shadows and margins.

As a nation, we are richly blessed in so many ways. Consequently, we have a moral duty to be generous in welcoming those migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who are forced by harsh circumstances to leave their homelands; as was the Holy Family.

If our great nation fails to provide adequate means of legal access for migrants, we diminish our greatness and unwittingly contribute to the continuing exploitation of these desperate men, women and children by unscrupulous traffickers. We can do better!