In the ongoing discussions surrounding immigration, part of the solution must involve looking at the factors that drive people to leave their homes in the first place, said the vice president of an international Catholic aid group.

“What we would like is more attention to addressing why people flee,” said Bill O'Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services.

O’Keefe spoke with CNA about the motives behind immigration to the United States, and how Catholic Relief Services is working to address these root causes.  

“There’s a range of reasons why people migrate from different parts of the world, but in summary: conflict, persecution, climate change, and extreme poverty are the principal drivers that we see.”

For example, he said, “you have people who are refugees or want to claim asylum in the United States because of persecution and violence.”

These refugees – such as those trying to escape religious persecution in the Middle East, civil war in parts of Africa, or gang violence in Central America – are really “forced migrants,” he said.  

“Their lives are at risk. They flee when they determine that staying would be a death sentence.”

There are also migrants who come to the United States “to live a better life,” often because they have no future or way to escape extreme poverty in their home country, O’Keefe continued.

In one part of West Africa where Catholic Relief Services works, there are rural communities where generations of families have farmed the land, he said. But changes in climate in recent years mean that agricultural productivity has dropped significantly, and farms that previously sustained families can no longer do so. Young people realize that they cannot survive by farming, and they are forced to move.

Jan. 6-12 marks National Migration Week, which has been observed by the U.S. Church for almost 50 years.

Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, elaborated on this year’s theme, “Building Communities of Welcome.”

“In this moment, it is particularly important for the Church to highlight the spirit of welcome that we are all called to embody in response to immigrant and refugee populations who are in our midst sharing our Church and our communities,” he said in a statement.

Immigration remains a divisive subject in Washington, D.C. In an evening address on Jan. 8, President Donald Trump reiterated his insistence that a border wall is necessary to keep America safe from drugs and violent gangs. Democrats in Congress have pushed back against the idea, refusing to agree to a budget that funds the wall. The dispute has prompted a partial federal government shutdown that has now lasted three weeks, with no end in sight.

The U.S. bishops’ conference has long advocated for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, with an earned legalization program, along with “targeted, proportional, and humane” enforcement measures.

The conference has also called for a temporary worker program that responds to market needs and protects against abuses, as well as the restoration of due process protections for immigrants, an emphasis on family unification, and policy changes to address the deeper causes of immigration.

Examining and addressing the things that drive people to leave their homes in the first place are key parts of a comprehensive approach to immigration, O’Keefe said.

“What needs more focused attention is how to help countries in Central America, for example, to address problems of violence, gangs, and poverty in those countries, so people don’t feel like they have to flee.”

This work is part of Catholic Relief Services’ focus as an international agency.

In El Salvador, where extreme gang violence has forced thousands to flee their homes, Catholic Relief Services runs a gang violence reduction program for young people. The agency works to help young people complete their education, get a job, and recognize that they have alternatives to joining a gang.  

“We have 15,000 youth or so who have gone through that program successfully, and a very high retention rate in terms of education and jobs,” O’Keefe said.

The agency also builds relationships with local companies in El Salvador, so that young people who complete the violence reduction program can find jobs. Sometimes there is a stigma against hiring former gang members, which can contribute to the problem, as ex-gang members who find themselves unemployed may be more likely to return to violent activity.

Catholic Relief Services certifies people who have completed their program, O’Keefe said. This increases their job prospects, boosting employer confidence and trust that they will be good employees.

In poor, rural areas of Honduras, the agency is working to implement a U.S. government-supported school feeding program.

The idea, O’Keefe said, is to build prospects for education in a poor part of the country by connecting families to educational institutions, so there is less incentive for them to leave.

“The more children are connected to schools and education, the less likely they are to fall into trouble,” he said.

“In Central America, one of the most climate-impacted parts of the world, we have done a lot of work with small farmers, particularly in the coffee sector,” O’Keefe continued. Coffee tends to grow on hills and mountains, he explained, and as the climate has gotten warmer, farmers have to go to higher elevations to grow the crop.  

Catholic Relief Services has helped the famers make that transition, O’Keefe said, whether it be a transition to different crops, farming techniques, or elevations. As a result, the people have avoided sinking further into poverty and in some cases are moving forward economically.

“That allows them to stay on their land and not feel like they have to migrate,” he said.

For Catholics, thinking about migration should always emphasize the dignity of human person, O’Keefe said. He noted the Share the Journey campaign launched in response to Pope Francis’ call a year ago for Catholics to unite in solidarity with migrants.

Over the past year, Catholic Relief Services has worked with the U.S. bishops’ conference and Migration and Refugee Services, as well as dioceses and Catholic universities, to organize events and activities “that highlight the plight of migrants and refugees, and just help Catholics in the United States to deepen their own understanding of…why people flee, what that experience is like, and really to have an experience of encounter.”

In a sub-campaign called Be Not Afraid, Catholic Relief Services worked with a videographer to bring together refugees and American citizens who had concerns and fears about immigration.

Videos on the Share the Journey website show the moment of encounter between people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives.

“That moment of encounter between them as human beings, where they recognize each other’s humanity.” O’Keefe said. “We did that because we really wanted to show what the Holy Father is asking us to do.”