The US Catholic Church’s National Migration Week comes to an end today. It coincides with the feast of the Epiphany, recalling that after the Magi left, the Holy Family became refugees, migrants, fleeing from the murderous advances of King Herod.
This week the issue of migration surfaced personally for me, as I hosted a group here from Shelby County in western Iowa.
As we were watching some friends process sugar cane in a rural village, a fifteen-year old young man from another family began to talk about his idea of going to the US.
As is my custom, I began to try to talk to him about the dangers of the passage to the US, especially through Mexico. (This was even more present to me since I had just watched the movie Sin Nombre.) I talked about the deaths, the robberies, and worse.
I also told him about the difficulty of getting work, and the costs of living in the US. I mentioned some Hondurans I’ve met who left the US because they couldn’t find work. I told him of a young man from a neighboring village who got to the US, was arrested within a short time of entering the country, was imprisoned, and deported back to Honduras on a plane. I’m not sure this got through.
He comes from a deeply religious family and said that God would protect him. I tried to tell him that that’s a presumptuous way to look at God’s care for us.
I later found out that a member of the group had also tried to talk him out of trying to go to the US.
I later sat down with his father who told me of his great concern about his son’s desire to leave for the US. He then told me that the previous Saturday three young men from the village had left for the US. One had gotten to the US a few months ago but was deported after only a month.
Later that week a friend of mine who works with youth in another town told of a young man who had gotten his teaching degree from the teachers’ high school and then got a job teaching. After two years he had not been paid. His reaction? To leave for the US.
I think young people leave here for a number of reasons – mostly economic. They think they can earn a great amount of money in the US and some go to try to find a way to support their families. Others, especially young men, may have a little of an adventurous spirit and so will set out on the perilous journey, almost as a challenge.
All this underlines what I consider to be a crucial issue, something that affects the way I see my ministry.
How can we help this country, especially the young, get a good education, live a decent, full and holy life in the countryside. Then they may not feel the pull of the US “paradise” where money grows on trees.
I fully support the first principle which the US and Mexican bishops noted ten years ago in their joint pastoral letter “Stranger No Longeron the Journey of Hope,” paragraph 34:
Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.
This is critical for the people here in Honduras and most of the world.
Unless this problem is faced, migration will continue and perhaps increase.
In addition, the US needs to change its policies and find ways to offer some opportunities for hard-working poor Hondurans and others to have access to some jobs in the US. Canada does this. In fact, we ran into one person in the village where we stayed who had just gotten back from working in Quebec. Jesus was glad to be back (probably in part to escape the cold), but he and several others from his village had that opportunity.
In addition, people of faith and the churches need to provide a welcome and support to migrants, even those without legal papers, and to advocate for changed policies.
The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger. Hebrews 13:2 puts it bluntly:
Do not neglect to offer hospitality; you know that some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Yet I still believe that the best way to deal with the issue in the long term is to transform places like Honduras.
Thus I have had to ask people who visit to be careful in how they respond to the hospitality of the people here. Telling people that they are welcome to their homes in the US needs to be stated carefully for an open invitation might spur an innocent young person to undertake the dangerous trip to US through Guatemala, Mexico, and the deserts of the US South West.
It would be better to say something like this:
We are awed by your openness and hospitality. We would love to be able to welcome you into our homes but the policies of the US make this almost impossible. The immigration laws are much too strict and discriminating against the poor. In addition, it is nearly impossible for a poor Honduran to get a visa to the US, even if not for work. So I want to help you try to find a way to live a decent life here. If the laws change and if the economic situation improves so that you can come legally, I’d love to welcome you in my home. In the meantime, make the best of your life here. I will work for real social change, even as I advocate for undocumented migrants in the US.
I think that’s what US people of faith should be saying and doing.