By MegAnne Liebsch
October 10, 2019 — “Welcome, protect, promote, integrate.” These words, spoken by Pope Francis, call upon global communities to embrace migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Echoing this appeal, Jesuit leaders from across the U.S. and Canada met today with the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security to advocate on behalf of people seeking asylum in the U.S.
Jesuit Conference President Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, and the Jesuit provincials leading the six provinces of Canada and the U.S. pressed Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan for a welcoming and humane asylum policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, they urged Homeland Security to end the department’s Remain in Mexico policy, prolonged family detention and new barriers to seeking asylum.
Stressing the real-life consequences of these policies, Jesuit Provincials told McAleenan harrowing stories of migrants in their regions, such as a Salvadoran man named Jorge who was kidnapped and intimidated by gangs. He escaped El Salvador and after arriving in Cincinnati, the support of Bellarmine Chapel has helped Jorge navigate the immigration process. Although the outcome of his asylum application is uncertain, over 560 parishioners have submitted formal letters of support for his application to the immigration court.
Despite the hardship asylum seekers face, the provincials also showed how welcoming communities can offer migrants hope and safety. These narratives demonstrated that increasing numbers of asylum seekers is not an excuse to abandon moral and legal obligations to people who need protection. They reminded Homeland Security that requesting asylum is not a crime and is protected by both U.S. and international law.
“We appreciate the opportunity for a frank and honest dialogue and look forward to following up on the concerns we raised,” said Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference, following the meeting with McAleenan.
According to Fr. Kesicki, the meeting was an opportunity for Jesuit leadership to put faith into action. “Welcoming the stranger is an important part of living the Gospel,” Fr. Kesicki said. “I’m sad to see how many countries are afraid of migrants, are fearful of asylum seekers. When in fact, migration of populations has brought about so much good, so much creativity, so much new life in the world.”
Rather than welcome, policies at the border imperil the lives of thousands of asylum seekers. Jesuit leaders stressed to McAleenan the need to end these inhumane policies, including the Remain in Mexico policy. Officially called Migrant Protection Protocols, Remain in Mexico forces Central American asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their claims are processed, leaving tens of thousands of migrants stranded and vulnerable to human trafficking, extortion, violence, homelessness and other inhumane conditions.
Similarly, Jesuit leaders voiced their anger over the detention of migrants for months or years as they await their immigration hearings, sometimes in very poor conditions. Rather than incarcerate asylum seekers, they argued, the department should reinstate and expand community-based family case management plans, which are more cost-effective and, more importantly, uphold the dignity and human rights of migrants.
The provincials also called for an end to strict new asylum eligibility rules. Asylum seekers from Central America are fleeing failed economic models, violence and corrupt governance in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. A new rule imposed by the department, however, requires most asylum seekers first to apply for asylum in a country through which they transit — forcing them to seek protection in the very countries people are fleeing. The provincials denounced the worsening pattern of Border Patrol wrongfully removing Mexican asylum seekers from the U.S. without a hearing, despite the proven danger for those returned to Mexico.
For Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, provincial of Jesuits West, current immigration policy is “a betrayal of our identity as a country of immigrants.” He called on Americans to “use our voices collectively to make our country more the country we believe it should be — more the country it wants to be. What does that mean? It means putting our own credibility on the line and saying, ‘I believe in this.’”
Join the Jesuit Conference in supporting migrants and asylum seekers.