Why I went to the border

Often ignored in the emotionally charged immigration debate in this country are the human beings a broken immigration system impacts.   Millions of our fellow human beings are harshly treated under our system—their families are divided, they face discrimination and exploitation, and they even die.

Along with my brother bishops, I recently traveled to the southern border with Mexico to look at the desert places migrants die, to celebrate Mass for them and their families, and to lay a wreath at the border wall to remember them.

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We were inspired by Pope Francis, who, in his first trip outside Rome, visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, the island in which migrants from Africa attempt to reach Europe.  20,000 have died trying to reach Lampedusa.  During his visit, Pope Francis spoke of the “globalization of indifference” in the world toward migrants and how our “throwaway culture” fails to value them as human beings.

Our southern border with Mexico is our Lampedusa.  Migrants from our hemisphere, desperate to support their families or to escape persecution, attempt to reach our southern border in the hope of a better life. Instead, they can lose their lives, as more than 6,000 have done since the turn of the century.  They die in the desert, but also at the hands of smugglers, human traffickers, and drug cartels. 

This sad reality reflects our nation’s own indifference, as those who have died are barely mentioned in the immigration debate.  They, and not our border enforcement system that drives them into dangerous and remote areas, are blamed for their own deaths.

These deaths are not the only suffering created by this system.  As we well know, daily families are separated by our deportation machinery and our expansive for-profit detention system. 

While there are compelling economic, social, and legal reasons to reform our immigration system, the most important ones are moral. As a nation, we should not tolerate a system which preys on our fellow human beings by disregarding their basic human rights.  It violates the principles upon which our nation was founded, and which have made our nation great. As Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has stated, our immigration system is a “stain on the soul of our nation.”

To be sure, enforcement is an important piece of our immigration system. But there is hypocrisy to our system, as well.  If workers are able to make it through the dangers of crossing and get to a workplace, we are more than happy to accept their labor, and, yes, their taxes.  They cook our meals, clean our lawns and homes, take care of our children and elderly, and pick our fruits and vegetables.

To protect their lives, the bishops believe that these low-skilled workers should be allowed to come legally and safely to meet our demand.  Those here should be brought out of the shadows and put on the long road to citizenship.  Then, a workable and enforceable employer verification system should be implemented to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules. 

Despite some assertions, Catholic teaching supports the government’s role in enforcing our laws, unless those laws threaten human rights and human life.  Once that happens, they must be changed.

Celebrating a Mass of remembrance with those on both sides of the border wall was not a political act, but a demonstration of our common humanity and that we are, indeed, all God’s children.  This fact is often forgotten in our national discourse.

As I prayed at the wall, I prayed not only for those who have died, but also for our nation, that we may create an immigration system that serves our nation’s goals and protects human rights. I also prayed for our elected officials in Congress and the President, so they may find a place in their hearts and minds—and the political courage-- to act to change this immoral system.

Elizondo is auxiliary bishop of Seattle, Washington, and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Migration.