Martin, Pimentel encourage Catholics to help migrants under shadow of Trump policies

by Soli Salgado

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump directed his administration to arrest and deport any undocumented immigrants they can find, regardless of their criminal status.

As of Feb. 21, the Department of Homeland Security permits law enforcement to act immediately in raiding immigrant communities and detaining people with chargeable offenses (including those who have crossed the border illegally), those who receive welfare benefits, and those with minor infractions (such as driving without a license).

"Administration officials said some of the new policies — like one seeking to send unauthorized border crossers from Central America to Mexico while they await deportation hearings — could take months to put in effect and might be limited in scope," The New York Times reported. "For now, so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as young children, will not be targeted unless they commit crimes, officials said on Tuesday."

The news broke days after the anniversary of Pope Francis visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and celebrating Mass, in which he pleaded for mercy toward migrants. Later, aboard the papal plane, he said building walls is not Christian.

Less than a week before the Trump administration's announcement, Faith in Public Life hosted a telephone town hall Feb. 15 in which the three participants drew from their personal experiences with migrants and refugees to offer reflection and calls to action. On the call was Jesuit Fr. James Martin of America magazine; Missionaries of Jesus Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; and Julieta Garibay, co-founder of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant organization in the country.

If you feel that refugees, migrants and foreigners deserve a home and safety, and you can give it to them but you don't, then what are you doing? What's the point? Martin asked, invoking a dissertation by the late Jesuit Fr. Mike Evans, former head of Jesuit Refugee Service in East Africa.

Martin, who worked in East Africa in the early 1990s as a Jesuit in training, recalled refugees who came from Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda: "What I saw were people who really work harder than anybody else.

"One of the great insults of refugees is that they're lazy, that they come here and sort of want to sponge off us; there's that us-them mentality, which is ridiculous. But what I saw was people who really wanted a good life for themselves, a better life. They were fleeing as refugees and migrants do, not only poverty, but in this case, war and violence, and the threat of death."

When she was 12 years old, Garibay came to the United States with her mother and sister to escape her abusive father in Mexico. Though she arrived as an undocumented immigrant, she later achieved legal status through the Violence Against Women Act. Because she was married to an abusive husband, Garibay was granted rights that would ultimately protect her from domestic violence, helping her become independent and allowing her to leave him.

"We need bold, courageous love from our allies, like you all, who are willing to say, I will step in and I will protect those who are in danger, those who are trying to be with their families and trying to make a better life," she said.

Pimentel noted that at the Catholic Charities where she works near the border in Texas, they used to see 300 to 350 immigrants at the center every day. But that was a couple of weeks ago; now, that number has dropped to roughly 50 to 75 a day.

Though the drop may be for a number of reasons, she said, "We assume it's because they're being detained."

"It's unfortunate this is happening, because they come so eager to find a place where they can be protected, and unfortunately, they find themselves in detention facilities, where they feel hopeless and not knowing what's going to happen to them. We're here to be with them, to be in solidarity, to support and encourage them, and [help them] know they matter."

Those who arrive at Pimentel's Catholic Charities center, however, are only there for a couple of hours before leaving and joining relatives in various parts of the United States.

"They go to other places where they'll need the support of their community, good people that will reach out to them and welcome them as part of us and our community," she said.

To illustrate this as a fundamental Christian duty, Martin pointed to various parables and passages in the Bible.

"You shall not oppress the alien, for you were aliens yourself once in the land of Egypt," he quoted from Exodus. He also quoted from Psalms 46, "The Lord loves the stranger," and, from Kings 2, "We should do all that the foreigner asks of us."

In the Bible, there's a double command, Martin said: "You're to care for refugees and migrants, and you have to remember that we were all refugees and migrants at one point."

Turning to the New Testament, Martin tied the parable of the good Samaritan to arguments in defense of Trump's recent travel ban on Muslims, an executive order that was rejected by a federal appeals court and is currently on hold.

"The [Samaritan] stops at risk to himself," Martin said. "So when we hear all these arguments, 'Well, we can't help the migrant or refugee because it's too risky' — which is, frankly, false, in terms of the amount of crime or terrorism that they supposedly [commit] — we're supposed to help people even if it's risky, not simply when it's convenient for us, or when it's easy for us and no risk. Jesus says, 'Just help.' "

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph were all refugees," Martin added. "I don't know how much clearer you can get about the need to care for migrants and refugees and displaced persons than that."

When it comes to popes and their calls to care for migrants, Martin reminded town-hall listeners that Francis is hardly alone in his statements in favor of helping immigrants, joining the popes dating back to St. Pope John XXIII.

Martin said St. Pope John Paul II, "as if predicting our current situation where [refugees] seemed to be blamed for everything, he says: 'It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempts to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult and local situations.'

"It really is the constant Christian teaching of the modern church."

Though it's easy to be left feeling impotent and distant upon reading news of the border or watching footage of the migrant's international plight, Pimentel and Martin suggested the following steps to help those in need:

  • Get to know them as human beings, whether it's individually and in person or by reading and getting familiar with their experiences.
  • Advocate for them by calling legislators, marching in protest, or showing up at town hall meetings.
  • Donate money to organizations that advocate for refugees.
  • Share information with friends and challenge those who are misinformed.

Lastly, Martin said, pray for them and those who work with them.

"Be kind to your neighbor," Pimentel said. "Use your voice for the good of those that are voiceless, and have an encounter with those folks who need us, the immigrants and refugees."

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]

A young man holds a soccer ball with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe Jan. 26 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border fence. (CNS/Alejandro Bringas, EPA)
A young man holds a soccer ball with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe Jan. 26 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border fence. (CNS/Alejandro Bringas, EPA)