During his historic visit to the United States, Pope Francis has already addressed one of the most controversial subjects in our country: immigration. He arrives at a time when the European continent is struggling with its own commitment to protect millions of refugees who have fled war and conflict. After weeks and months of headlines showing pictures of people making desperate journeys across land and water--some drowning in the Mediterranean and others suffocating in trucks--there is still no agreement among European nations how to respond. The issue is not only a refugee crisis but a crisis of conscience.
In America, we have similarly struggled with the question of immigration and how our nation should welcome people who come to our shores and borders—whether they are seeking work and new opportunity or fleeing war, violence and other horrors. Debate on the airwaves casts our nation as deeply divided; however, polls show widespread agreement among Americans with strong majorities, often more than 70 percent, supporting immigration through comprehensive reforms to our laws. And that includes a path to legal status and eventually citizenship for those living here unauthorized.
How the Pontiff views those who come as strangers to a new land is no secret. On Syrian refugees, he has called for prayer, charity, and cooperation, and he has exhorted every church parish to take in one refugee family. On immigration, earlier this year he expressed the desire to cross the U.S. border with Mexico as a “gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants.” He has made clear where he stands, and through his vision of the world and his love for each person living on this planet, he has brought forth transformative power and leadership.
We hope our nation’s leaders and all Americans will take this visit from Pope Francis as a moment for reflection. We hope Congress will re-start conversations on immigration with an open spirit. Our nation urgently needs new laws that are more befitting for this country that prides itself on its global leadership and immigrant heritage. With respect to refugees worldwide, we can and must do more. In addition to the 10,000 Syrian refugees the President plans to resettle next year in the U.S., we should accept 90,000 more.
For those children and families who have crossed our borders from Central America fleeing rape, domestic violence, gang violence, and other persecution, we urge the President to stop the forceful deterrence strategy that has resulted in jailing thousands of women and children. In preliminary interviews with asylum officers, the great majority of these children and mothers are qualifying as refugees under U.S. law. The detention facilities are run by private prison companies whose profits are growing by the millions while mothers are watching their children lose weight or get sick.
Shortly after his election, Pope Francis visited a prison in Rome and kissed the feet of twelve convicted criminals, including several who were migrants from North Africa and Muslim. “This is a symbol, it is a sign--washing your feet means I am at your service,” he said, “I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.” We too have recently visited jails. We have both gone to our southern borders to visit the Central American families in detention. We have witnessed the heartache, confusion, and desperation there. We are shocked that our government has treated these families not as victims, but as criminals; not as human beings, but as something far less.
So with the arrival of Pope Francis, we ask how should we treat those who arrive at our borders fleeing for their lives? Can we continue to reject them and imprison them when His Holiness embraces even those who are the most sick, diseased, and unwanted? Before us is an opportunity not only to show Pope Francis and the world who we are as a nation, but to prove to ourselves the strength of our own spirit and the humanity in our hearts.
Gutierrez has represented Illinois’ 4th Congressional District since 1993. He sits on the intelligence and the Judiciary committees. Pradis is president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.