Following the Higher Law on Refugees

The news has been filled over the past few days with the new President’s Executive Order on immigration and refugees. The refugee part of the order bears very close examination, and, I believe, unequivocal condemnation. The order temporarily suspends the admission of any refugees into the United States, slices in half the number of refugees that will eventually be admitted, and places an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

The plight of refugees, especially from the war-torn areas of Syria and Iraq, is well known. It is a catastrophic tragedy, and has caused the worst humanitarian crisis involving refugees and displaced persons since World War II. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced because of the civil war, and over 4 million of them have fled their country. Over 3 million Iraqis have been displaced, with over 200,000 fleeing the country. Religous minorities have faced brutal persecution to the point of genocide — primarily Christians, but also Yazidis, and Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Many of them are sheltered in refugee camps where the living conditions are awful, and in which some of the persecution has continued.

There’s no doubt that the President has the legal authority to impose regulations and limits on refugee admissions. That’s a settled matter under both American and international law. It’s also clear that the primary obligation of civil authorities is to protect the people in their community.

There certainly can be a healthy debate about the extent of the threat posed to the United States by refugees. Studies of terrorist strikes against our country shows that very few were carried out by refugees, and that the great majority were by citizens or permanent residents. There can certainly be concerns about the potential for future radicalization of refugees. But that is all speculative and conjectural and in some ways beside the point — we have no idea what will happen to these people in the future, but we do know exactly how they are suffering now.

But apart from the prudential issues under secular law and public policy, there is a higher law that we must consider — God’s law. In his Message for the 2017 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the Holy Father said this:

we need to become aware that the phenomenon of migration is not unrelated to salvation history, but rather a part of that history. One of God’s commandments is connected to it: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion. While appreciating the issues, and often the suffering and tragedy of migration, as too the difficulties connected with the demands of offering a dignified welcome to these persons, the Church nevertheless encourages us to recognize God’s plan. She invites us to do this precisely amidst this phenomenon, with the certainty that no one is a stranger in the Christian community, which embraces “every nation, tribe, people and tongue” (Rev 7:9). Each person is precious; persons are more important than things, and the worth of an institution is measured by the way it treats the life and dignity of human beings, particularly when they are vulnerable, as in the case of child migrants.

Jesus himself was also quite clear that we will be judged based on our conduct towards our least brethren, including “strangers”:

`Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (Mt 25:41-45)

The President’s order is utterly incompatible with God’s law. It rejects the inherent solidarity that exists between all human persons, and fragments the human family into competing camps. In God’s eyes it is utterly irrelvant that a person happens to have been born within arbitrary national boundaries, most of which were invented out of whole cloth by cynical European imperialists. Arbitrarily suspending all refugee admissions, reducing the number of refugees that we will take, and closing the door indefinitely to refugees from Syria, is to condemn our brothers and sisters who are made in God’s image to continued persecution and suffering.

This all may sound idealistic and naive to modern ears, particularly in a world that lives in fear of terrorism. But I have faith that if we follow God’s higher law, we will actually reduce the threats to our nation. We can show the world that the American Dream is not just material prosperity, but is a welcoming society in which all kinds of people can flourish in freedom and peace. We can prove that we are vigilant but also compassionate, and that we are confident that once people come to our nation they will be converted to our values. True American values are the antidote to radicalization and terror.

I am proud to stand with George Washington, who shared my faith in America. He once said this to an association of Irishmen who had recently emigrated to America, most of whom were Catholics, an oppressed religious minority:

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

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