An asylum-seeking migrant carries two girls while walking in the Rio Grande as Texas Ranger officers await at the riverbank in Roma, Texas, April 5. CNS photo/Go Nakamura, Reuters

Borders an opportunity to encounter the other: Pope Francis

  • May 14, 2021

In a world of 79.5 million forcibly displaced people, 26 million of them officially designated refugees, Pope Francis wants us thinking and praying about our borders in moral, ethical and spiritual terms.

“Today’s migration movements offer an opportunity for us to overcome our fears and let ourselves be enriched by the diversity of each person’s gifts,” Pope Francis writes in his message for the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, released May 3. “We can transform borders into privileged places of encounter, where the miracle of an ever wider ‘we’ can come about.” It is a message that has particular significance in the context of the pandemic that has swept the world.

“In many cases, what’s going on (at borders around the world) is immoral,” said Ben Muller, a political science professor at King’s University College in London, Ont., and expert in borders and borderlands. “Mobility is part of the human experience and it always has been. Increasingly, the problem is that we’re treating movement itself — and the pandemic has only amplified this — we’re treating movement as something that is dangerous and hostile in and of itself.”

When people decide migrants and refugees are the problem, they’re not being very Catholic, the Pope writes in his message for the Sept. 26 World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

“This appeal entails a commitment to becoming ever more faithful to our being ‘catholic,’ ” wrote Pope Francis. “The Church’s catholicity, her universality, must be embraced and expressed in every age, according to the will and grace of the Lord who promised to be with us always, until the end of the age. … In encountering the diversity of foreigners, migrants and refugees, and in the intercultural dialogue that can emerge from this encounter, we have an opportunity to grow as Church and to enrich one another.”

In pre-COVID times Muller led King’s students on expeditions to the U.S. southern border and to Rome to discuss migration issues with Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny. Muller pushes his students to see beyond the political rhetoric of a “crisis” at the border.

“The crisis is the border itself, not the people who find themselves at the border,” he said. “Migration is not the crisis.”

Muller worries that COVID-19 has made it easy, once again, for politicians and others to scapegoat migrants. While reasonable measures to prevent variants from becoming an even bigger issue than they already are may be justified, most of the solutions have more to do with public-health measures than shutting down borders, Muller said.

“We recognize there’s a crisis in India and this could introduce certain variants to us, but the bigger issue is that this is a sort of ready-made solution that’s sitting there — to other people, to vilify people who are coming to our shores. I think that’s the problem,” Muller said.

“Everywhere, people are using the pandemic as an excuse to close doors and batten them down tight,” University of Detroit Mercy law professor and director of the immigration law clinic Alex Vernon told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “While certainly there are good public health reasons to limit travel, every society is recognizing that exceptions need to be made for essential travel, which can be managed with proper precautions. Of course, there is no more essential travel than that of refugees fleeing for their lives.”

With continued reports of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean and 225 migrant deaths in the Arizona desert last year, Canadians might be tempted to smugness, said Muller.

“We like to be smug and say that we’re better, but are we?” Muller asked. “In our recent Canadian federal budget there’s a significant amount of money that is devoted to the Canada Border Services Agency, and the increased use of technologies — surveillance, AI, other things. There’s yet to be any oversight in our system over the use of those things or over that department in our government.”

Pope Francis ends his message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, as he ends all his messages, with a prayer.

“Bless each act of welcome and outreach that draws those in exile into the ‘we’ of community and of the Church,” he writes.

“A faith perspective does try to intervene on behalf of humanity and say, ‘These are human beings,’ ” said Muller. “How can we stand behind policies that are contributing to their deaths?”

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