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February 12, 2017

Executive actions on refugees and immigrants: history and humanity

Cardinal Cupich’s Schedule

  1. Feb. 13: 7 p.m., Annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture series, DePaul University, Lincoln Park Student Center, Chicago
  2. Feb. 14: 10 a.m., Episcopal council meeting, Residence, Chicago
  3. Feb. 16: 10 a.m., Priests Day, White Eagle Banquets and Restaurant, Niles
  4. Feb. 17: 7:30 p.m., Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross” performance with Maestro Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago
  5. Feb. 18: 7:30 p.m., Nightfever Mass, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago
  6. Feb. 19: 3 p.m., Confirmation, St. Mary of the Lake Church, Chicago
  7. Feb. 26: 2:30 p.m., Rite of Election, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago
Archbishop Cupich's Coat of Arms

In recent articles and statements (see statement) I have addressed the plight of newcomers to our country, particularly those affected by recent executive actions and orders. My aim has been to call attention to the fact that the lives of real people are involved. They are people with their own stories and struggles who bravely seek a better life, believing that the Statue of Liberty’s torch lights the way for them too.

Sadly, our nation has not always lived up to Lady Liberty’s unique invitation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

But, it is also important to recall some facts that at times are obscured in the back and forth on this issue. When we lose sight of the facts it is easy to give in to fears and accept the falsehoods, which, in the long run, only cheapen our public discourse, provide poor examples for our children and compromise our standing in the world.

This week I want to recall some of those moments in human history when a failure to welcome those displaced or migrating resulted in disastrous consequences. In the next issue of Chicago Catholic, I will call on the experience we have in the Catholic church in resettling refugees and immigrants to offer some remarks on the process of vetting and screening, the many sides of security and solidarity and how immigrants and refugees have proved to be a blessing, not a burden, to our country.

History and humanity: We have seen this story before

In 1939, the ship St. Louis carrying hopeful refugees was turned away from Cuba because the passengers were Jewish.* Forced to return to a Europe on the verge of war, nearly a third of the passengers died in the Holocaust. Earlier in 1922, while Smyrna, Turkey, burned, European ships were moored offshore while hundreds of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees crammed the waterfront to escape the fire.

They waited weeks for rescue. Tens of thousands died on the docks and many survivors suffered atrocities. Their crimes? They professed a religion at odds with the state and their situation complicated tenuous diplomatic alliances.

We know that this story is also familiar to Catholics. In days not so long ago, our ancestors were victimized as anti-immigrant fears were whipped up, giving rise to quota laws, church burnings, beatings and voting restrictions. Our crime? Adhering to a religion that was foreign and thought to be seditious, a threat to the nation. In hard economic times, we were often made into scapegoats and suffered discrimination because of where we came from and what we believed.

The point of recalling these stories is simple. We have seen this before and it has not worked out well, not for the refugees or for the nations that failed to defend them. My brother bishop Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, in a recent article published in the Boston Globe, wrote that the executive orders on immigration and refugee settlement have both harmed people and harmed our standing in the world. They have “produced astonishment and confusion in our country and in the international community. The primary cause of these reactions was the tone, style and frenzied pace of the announced policy changes. They conveyed an image of the United States different than our proud heritage of strength and stature and, for many, invoked a sense of rejection and fear.”

Surely our leaders have the grave responsibility of keeping us safe, as our country, like all countries, has a right to domestic security and protection. But, as Cardinal O’Malley rightly observes, “this right should be exercised within the standards of social justice, compassion and respect for the human dignity of vulnerable individuals and families. Complex problems are not resolved with simplistic solutions, nor do they cancel the basic human duties that bind all nations, even in the midst of a threatening international climate.”

In my next column I will look at some of the complexities involved in refugee settlement as a means of separating facts from falsehoods, a much-needed task lest we allow fear to shape our responses and policies.

* This sentence has been corrected. It had erroneously stated that Cuba was a territory of the United States in 1939.