Last week was hard. It is sad to see it come to this — that the president of the United States must define, by an executive order, the precise meaning of the word “wall.”
“‘Wall’ shall mean a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier,” according to one of the three executive orders issued last week on immigrants and refugees.
The first thing to say is that these executive orders seem like they were put together too fast. Not enough thought seems to have been given to their legality or to explaining their rationale or to considering the practical consequences for millions of people here and across the globe.
It is true that the refugee orders are not a “Muslim ban,” as some protesters and media are claiming. In fact, the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries are not affected by the orders, including some that have real problems with terrorism, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That does not make these orders less troubling. Halting admissions of refugees for 90 or 120 days may not seem like a long time. But for a family fleeing a war-torn nation, or the violence of drug cartels, or warlords who force even children into armies — this could mean the difference between life and death.
And it is a simple fact that not all refugees are terrorists, and refugees are not even the main source of terrorist threats to our country. The terror attack here in San Bernardino was “home grown,” carried out by a man born in Chicago.
I am pleased that one of the orders will mean that our country will finally begin giving priority to helping Christians and other persecuted minorities.
But does God intend our compassion for people to stop at the borders of Syria? Are we now going to decide that some people are not worthy of our love because they have different skin color, a different religion or were born in the “wrong” country?
As a pastor, what troubles me is that all the anger, confusion and fear that resulted from last week’s orders was entirely predictable. Yet that does not seem to have mattered to the people in charge.
I worry that in the name of showing toughness and determination, we are communicating to the world a harsh indifference.
Right now, no nation accepts more refugees than the United States. So what kind of message are we sending to the world?
Those moments in our history that we are the least proud of — from the Holocaust to the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s — are moments when we closed our borders and our hearts to the sufferings of innocent people.
We all agree that our nation has the obligation to secure its borders and establish criteria for who is permitted to enter and how long they are permitted to stay. In a post-9/11 world, we all agree there are people both inside and outside our borders who want to hurt us. We share a common concern for our nation’s security and the safety of our loved ones.
But our approach to all these issues must be consistent with our ideals. America has always been different — some would say exceptional. Welcoming immigrants and sheltering refugees has always been something special and essential about who we are — as a nation and as a people.
It is true that these new orders on immigration mostly call for just returning to the practice of enforcing existing laws.
The problem is that our laws have not been enforced for so long that we now have millions of undocumented people living, working, worshipping and going to school in our country.
That includes millions of children who are citizens living in homes with undocumented parents. These children have the right — as citizens and as sons and daughters of God — to grow up with some assurance that their parents will not be deported.
These new orders do not change the fact that our nation needs true and lasting reform of our immigration system. Do we really want to hand over the fate of millions of fathers, mothers and children to overworked caseworkers in an underfunded immigration court system?
A policy of enforcement only — without reform of the underlying system — will only lead to a human rights nightmare.
As a Church, our priorities remain with our people. We will continue to follow the call of Christ through our parishes, charities and relief organizations.
And I repeat, as I have said before: the most constructive and compassionate thing our government can do right now is to stop the deportations and the threat of deportations for those who are not violent criminals.
Our Christian mission is clear — we are called to hear the cry of the poor and we are called to open our doors to the stranger who knocks and to seek the face of Christ who comes to us in the immigrant and the refugee.
Please pray for me this week and I will be praying for you.
And may our Blessed Mother Mary help all of us — and especially our leaders — to meet the challenges that we face as one nation of immigrants under God.