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Mercy Moments: Rights and Responsibilities

Created and hosted by Marissa Flores Madden

“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 19:33-34

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Hebrews 13:2

In a series of reflections titled Walking with Migrants, retired Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote, “As a young priest, one of my duties was the supervision of a local shelter. I remember being asked a question by an undocumented woman at the shelter: ‘Is it a sin to be undocumented?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘it is not your sin.”

DiMarzio’s response implies that the phenomenon of migration without documentation is someone’s sin, but it removes the blame which is typically placed on the ones migrating. 

So, we must ask: whose sin is it?

As a high school campus minister, I had the opportunity to accompany students on a number of immersion retreats featuring lessons on U.S. immigration and Catholic social teaching.  In 2018 we visited the border towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico where we toured the border wall, the separate towns that had once functioned as a single community before the wall was built, and the breathtaking desert and mountains which surrounded the area.  We were also invited to participate in a weekly vigil alongside the road leading up to the Mexican port-of-entry.  A small but committed group had been gathering in prayer every Tuesday evening for years.  They brought with them a wagon filled with white crosses, each with a different name and age printed on them.  As we processed in a single file line down the sidewalk, each person would take turns leading the line as one by one we turned around on the curb, raised our cross high in the air, and shouted the name and age listed on the cross.  Everyone would respond “Presente!” recognizing the person named on the cross was present with us. Then we would lean the cross against the curb, grab another cross from the wagon that was journeying with us, and move to the back of the line.  Hundreds of crosses.  Hundreds of names. Hundreds of lifeless bodies collected throughout the breathtaking desert whose beauty seemed to diminish with each cry of “presente.”

A U.S. immigration policy known as “Prevention through Deterrence” was enacted three decades ago placing a wall, armed guards, and surveillance technology at easily passable border areas and forcing migrants to cross through more hostile terrain that lacked the heightened security of the other high trafficked areas.  The policy has not prevented, nor has it deterred many, if any, from crossing through the unrelenting desert; but as the weekly vigil reminded us, it has claimed countless lives.  When people are willing to risk their lives to save their lives, nothing will deter them.  Each name printed on the white crosses was the name of someone who had passed away in the desert attempting to enter the United States.  Some crosses read “No identificado.”  Unidentifiable.  Some families had called authorities or sent out search parties when their loved ones hadn’t arrived at their planned destinations.  Others had never been claimed, except by nature, or by some unsuspecting hikers.

To close the vigil, we gathered at the end of the row of hundreds of white crosses on the curb, next to the port-of-entry, and we sang a Spanish psalm “Envía tu Espíritu.

Sea renovada la faz de la tierra.”  Send us your Spirit.  Renew the face of the earth.  By the end of the song, everyone was in tears, but no one seemed to mind.  Some things are worthy of our tears.

A few of the leaders of the vigil had also begun marking where the bodies had been discovered by placing crosses in the desert.  Miniature memorials recognizing the value of the lives lost.  These rituals – the vigil and the memorials – remind us that these people remain present with us, telling a story of the rights of migrants and the responsibilities of receiving communities.

Whoses sin is it?

I recently read an article which spoke to the importance of recognizing that even though Catholic social teaching is applied to modern political issues, the teaching itself is pre-political.  And while Pope Leo XIII’s contributions to sharing real world implications for Catholic social teaching are undeniable, the teaching is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and affirmed in the Gospels.  Our call to uphold the dignity and rights of all of humanity is an ancient calling with a modern praxis. 

While scripture is clear on how we are to treat migrants and refugees, popes beginning with Leo XIII have also regularly included the care and concern of migrants in their publications and preaching.  In fact, well over a hundred years ago, Benedict XV inaugurated World Day of Migrants and Refugees which is still celebrated by Catholics today.  And it was Pius XII and John XXIII who began to issue encyclicals which specifically addressed the right to migrate.  Since these early days of modern Catholic social teaching, pontiffs have increasingly laid claim to the freedom of movement as a basic human right.  This quick scan of recent Church history naturally leads to the present day in which Pope Francis has made migration a focus of his papacy, calling for compassion in what he has referred to as a “human tragedy.”  As he preaches a culture of encounter, he regularly meets with those on the margins of society, and in 2016 he celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juarez – a liturgy which included migrants on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.  In his homily that day, he described the situation at the border saying, “This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families. They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence…Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest.” 

It’s not just the rights of migrants which the popes and bishops have continued to uphold.  They also acknowledge the responsibilities of both the sending and the receiving countries: that people have the right to thrive in their homelands without ever feeling the need to leave; that all nations have the right to regulate their borders; and that, additionally, all nations’ decisions must be guided by mercy, compassion, human dignity, and the common good of all people.  Catholic social teaching states that it is a human right to move in order to sustain your life and the lives of your family.  It also states that receiving communities have a corresponding moral responsibility to welcome migrants.

Whose sin is it?

In 2019, one of my sisters and her family moved back to her husband’s hometown in Mexico.  Leading up to her move, some family members and friends were concerned, asking “Isn’t Mexico dangerous?  Aren’t you worried about safety?”  But then just weeks before her move, Latinos were targeted in a mass shooting.  In Walmart.  In the United States.  Like the U.S. State Department, the Mexican government also issues travel advisories for its citizens, noting that the U.S. is not welcoming to Mexicans and warning of the prevalence of discrimination towards Latinos.

Then a few months ago, I stayed home from work at Family Immigration Services.  I woke up feeling sick and I assumed I was coming down with something.  It wasn’t until much later in the day when I realized what my body had been telling me.  It’s true, I wasn’t well, but it wasn’t from a virus.  It was stress from a national threat that had been made against Catholic Charities employees who work with immigrants.  When my husband Tony came home that evening, I told him I knew why I was sick.  And he kindly interrupted me before I could even explain, saying, “I just assumed it was because of the threat.” 

Tony is from Mexico, and he had recently told me that he used to think Americans just hated Mexicans, but now he believes that the hatred extends to all foreigners.  Could his ability to rapidly diagnose my condition be a direct result of the illness that plagues him daily?  The illness that plagues our nation?  Whereas I am threatened because I choose to work with immigrants, he is threatened because of his very existence.  And neither is okay.

Whose sin is it?

A nation of immigrants that hates immigrants.  A Church of immigrants that forgets its own.  It’s our sin.  A sin of indifference.  A sin of pride.  A sin of apathy.  A sin of failing to uphold human rights.  And a sin of neglecting the responsibilities we have to one another and the common good.  It’s our sin each time we fail to recognize the dignity of a stranger and the divine presence in the foreigner.  And so we pray for forgiveness, for compassion, for empathy and understanding.  We pray for kinship and a place of belonging for all.  We pray that we might turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.  And with tears, we pray: Come Holy Spirit.  Renew the face of the earth.

Cover Art: © “Rights & Responsibilities” by Br. Mickey McGrath OFSF, Courtesy of Trinity Stores,, 800.699.4482

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