Fr. Martins Emeh is a Nigerian who has been living in the United States for the past 20 years.
As a Catholic and a migrant, he told CNA that U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent remarks disparaging poor countries were “lamentable.”
On Thursday, during a meeting with lawmakers about solutions for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Trump reportedly said he would not want more migrants coming to the United States from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
“Why are we having all these people from s---hole countries come here?” Trump said, according to reports from the Washington Post.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.” Sen. Richard Durbin, who attended the meeting, later told the Washington Post that its initial report was accurate.
Many Catholics, including Catholics who are migrants themselves, or those who have worked with migrants from these countries, said that they found the comments troublesome.
“Reports of recent disparaging remarks about African countries and Haiti have aroused great concern,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.
“All human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and comments that denigrate nations and peoples violate that fundamental truth and cause real pain to our neighbors...As a vigorous debate continues over the future of immigration, we must always be sure to avoid language that can dehumanize our brothers and sisters,” the bishops said.
Fr. Emeh, parochial vicar of Epiphany of the Lord parish in Katy, Texas and a Nigerian who has lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years, called the president’s comments “lamentable.”
“(T)he President, who should be the moral voice of the country, has turned out to be the divider-in-chief,” he told CNA.
Emeh said that the president’s comments show a lack of understanding of the continent of Africa, which is comprised of more than 50 countries, as well as a harsh dismissal of the poor.
“Trump isn’t Catholic so he probably doesn’t understand some of Catholic social justice teaching, but you don’t even have to be Catholic to appreciate social justice, the preferential option for the poor,” Emeh told CNA.
“The poor need our help,” he said, noting that the Statue of Liberty itself welcomes migrants to America with the quote: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“I believe there’s a reason why that was engraved on the Statue of Liberty, that’s what this country is about,” he said. “A lot of the people who came here, including Trump’s (ancestors), to escape what he calls these ‘s---hole countries.’ His ancestors came here fleeing one, and now Trump doesn’t think that other people should have the same opportunity.”
Trump’s comments come amidst intense political debate over the status of various protected groups of migrants in the United States. These include DACA recipients and those with Temporary Protected Status, such as migrants from Haiti and El Salvador who came to the United States legally, fleeing natural disasters and violent political situations in their own countries.
David Quinn is a Catholic missionary from Hastings, Neb. who has lived in Haiti since the spring of 2015. Quinn told CNA that in his experience, Haitians who migrate to the United States come looking for work and want to contribute to society.
He added that the president’s reported comments were inhumane, especially in light of Catholic social teaching.
“We’re all brothers and sisters, and to say (those things) is to really reject part of our humanity, to reject our brothers and sisters. It’s just terrible,” he said.
Bill Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA that the president’s comments go against what Pope Francis has asked of Catholics when it comes to the issue of migration.
“The Holy Father has asked us to gaze into every migrant’s face and see Christ in their face,” he said.
He echoed Quinn’s sentiments that on the whole, migrants are hardworking people who want to contribute to society.
“We’ve seen immigrants and refugees come into this country, and 90 percent of the refugees that we resettle are working within nine months,” he said. “There are a variety of types of work in this country available to these people, and the immigrants and refugees that come in start working right away.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said in statements posted to his social media accounts that DACA youth, which includes about 700,000 young people, represent the “best and the brightest” of the immigrants to the U.S.
“On Tuesday, the President suggested that he would sign whatever Congress brought him on the issue of DACA and a broader immigration reform. When he met with the bipartisan leaders to discuss their negotiations yesterday he brought with him some of the most hardline of the immigration restrictionists – people from FAIR and Numbers USA. His remarks laid bare the true motivations of those that want to close our nation to immigrants and hopefully these remarks have discredited the restrictionists' position,” he said.
“So now is the time for Congress to move ahead – to give a path to residency and citizenship to DACA recipients as well as to TPS beneficiaries, and to bring about comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes those irregular migrants already in the country and addresses border security in a rational way and provides an avenue for work-based visas when the labor market requires workers that cannot be found in the country,” he added.
Several other Catholic leaders spoke out against the president’s reported sentiments on their social media pages.
Obianuju Ekeocha, an international pro-life speaker and founder of Culture of Life Africa, said that people from the poor countries that the president reportedly disparaged understand the “inestimable worth and dignity” of every human being.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said in a tweet that migrants “made America great. We continue to be enriched by the gifts they bring to our shores,” he said.
Fr. Emeh added that while the president’s comments are discouraging, Christians and people of goodwill should not lose hope.
“We can’t give up. The president gets four or maybe eight years to do what he wants to do, but as preachers of the Gospel, we continue to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ,” he said.
“Jesus Christ wasn’t hanging out with just the rich, he looked to the poor, to the sick and the dying, those in need of help, and that’s where our focus should be. And as long as I live, that’s the Gospel I’ll continue to preach and live.”