NEW YORK CITY, United States — The children are coming, illegally and alone, and they are coming by the tens of thousands. They are crossing the borders of the United States and they are risking the high seas to reach Europe. They trust their lives to criminals—to smugglers and traffickers. Many are effectively enslaved. Many do not survive.
On Monday, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum meant to address the “urgent humanitarian situation” on the southwest border where the number of children from Mexico and Central America trying to cross without their parents may reach 60,000 this year.
On the waters of the Mediterranean, each summer brings tide after tide of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but this year the wave started much earlier than usual. About 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far. Some 3,000 of them are children without their parents.
Yet for all the talk of urgency in government press releases, this crisis is presented in oddly sanitized, depersonalized and distant-seeming language. Obama’s “urgent” directive to relevant agencies calls on them to respond to “the influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC),” thus reducing terrible suffering to a set of initials.
In fact, along the high fences and walls built around the rich nations of the world, the poor and dispossessed, the terrified and the suffering, the ambitious and the hopeful are gathering in scenes that look like they’re straight out of hell.
Maybe you’ve seen the stunning photographs of immigrants and refugees trying to storm the borders of Spain at the enclave of Melilla, or the tens of thousands awaiting deportation from American detention centers. Or, maybe, you read the stories about the 12-year-old Ecuadoran girl who committed suicide in Mexico when she could not reach her parents in New York.
In the midst of this massive tragedy, the most human and humane voices are coming from the Catholic Church: from Pope Francis himself, and from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who has spent his life working with immigrants, both those with papers and those without.
When I first met O’Malley in the late 1970s he was running the Spanish Catholic Center in one of the poorer corners of Washington, D.C., helping undocumented workers find housing, jobs, and a future in the United States. He wore the hooded brown habit and sandals of a Franciscan Capuchin friar. “Padre Sean,” they called him.
Today he still wears the habit much of the time, but his title is “Eminence,” and when required he dons the cardinal’s miter. At the last conclave to select a new pope, the “Vaticanista” press corps touted him as one of the leading candidates. And the man who finally was chosen, Pope Francis, has made O’Malley one of his most high-profile advisors on everything from organizational reform to the scandal of children sexually abused by priests.
But there is no subject that brings the pope and Padre Sean together more closely than immigration.
The first pastoral trip that Francis took outside of Rome as pontiff, in July last year, was to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where so many refugees and immigrants have first made landfall on European soil, and where so many have died trying.
“In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” said the pope as he stood in a playing field that served as a makeshift detention center.
“We have become used to the suffering of others: ‘It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!’ … The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”
In April of this year, O’Malley went to Nogales, Arizona, on the border with Mexico, and with other bishops distributed communion through the slats in the tall fence that separates the countries. He took a lot of flak for it. Right-wing Catholic pundit George Weigel criticized him for holding a “politicized” mass.
But other Catholic commentators leaped to O’Malley’s defense. “This place that is the border is precisely where our bishops should be because it is where Jesus would be,” wrote Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.
When O’Malley met with Pope Francis in Rome shortly afterward, the pontiff commented on the photographs that had come out of Arizona. “That’s a powerful picture,” he said to O’Malley.
Indeed. It’s not just the spiritual message, it’s the way of delivering it that is so striking in Francis’s church. “He’s a man who speaks in gestures,” O’Malley told me last week over lunch in New York City.
When I walked into the restaurant I was curious, of course, to see if O’Malley had changed much over the decades, and saw instantly that, apart from the whiteness of his hair and beard (he will turn 70 later this month), and the fact he was wearing a conventional priest’s collar that day, he seemed exactly the same.
We talked about the refugees and priests of Latin America during its wars, including El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Romero, shot with a bullet through the heart while performing mass at a hospice in 1980. But mainly we talked about rationalizing immigration policy as a matter of common sense, and common decency, not partisan politics.
The fear and hatred of foreigners is nothing new in the United States, nation of immigrants though it is. O’Malley said he’d been reading up on the Know-Nothings of the 19th century who wanted to limit severely the immigration of Catholics, require them to wait 21 years for naturalization, and allow only Protestants to teach in public schools.
There is a reason there are few stained-glass windows in the Philadelphia cathedral, he said: “Because they knew they would be broken with bricks.” (Indeed, the building was designed during Know-Nothing violence in the 1840s with no windows at all at street level).
In the 20th century that same sort of xenophobia was turned against immigrants from Latin America and Asia, O’Malley said, with the added factor of racism.
Bigotry, as religious scholar Reza Aslan points out, is not the result of ignorance so much as it is of fear. Yet most of the fears directed at immigrants are unfounded. There is ample proof, for instance, that first-generation immigrants do not increase crime, they help to reduce it.
“Obviously,” said O’Malley, the fear is “not rational, and I think we are dealing with it in an irrational way.” In his opinion, the “path to citizenship” for immigrants, which is anathema to many conservatives, is absolutely essential. “If anything, the United States should capitalize on people’s desire to become part of this country,” he said. “They become great contributors.”
But if their children grow up seeing their parents treated as, well, as “aliens,” they will be full of resentment.
What used to be called “the Protestant work ethic” is now better understood as an immigrant ethic, and it is not just about work. O’Malley sees it as “about the family and the common good and the values that have been eroded by our extreme individualism in this country.”
“The reason we have 11 million undocumented workers here is because we need them,” said O’Malley.
The cardinal clearly is frustrated with Washington, where sensible immigration bills go to die. But in the power of gestures, he sees some hope. The mass at the border is just one of many.
“I don’t think it will make any difference to the politicians,” said O’Malley, “but to the 11 million undocumented immigrants, we need to let them know we care, and are doing something to get this fixed.”
And, so, the fight against global indifference goes on. And the children keep coming.