What Pope Francis Has Said on Migrants, Refugees and Immigrants, and What He Might Say in the United States

We do not know exactly what Pope Francis will say on immigration during his visit later this month to the United States or even if he will directly address the US immigration debate. Earlier this week in advance of the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia which the Holy Father will attend, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput outlined the US bishops' immigration policy positions on immigrant families and provided a detailed response to recent developments in this area, including the proposed repeal of birthright citizenship and the detention of migrant families. Pope Francis may not engage the US immigration policy debate at that level of specificity, but certainly the struggles, gifts and hopes of migrants, refugees and immigrants have been a heart-felt concern and defining priority for Francis and his papacy. How might he address these issues during his visit?

If his recent statements can serve as a guide, the Holy Father will almost certainly call for greater solidarity, a virtue that Saint John Paul II described as "not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far," but "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and each individual, because we are all really responsible for all." Francis has attributed insufficient solidarity with migrants and refugees to the "globalization of indifference." He has repeatedly posed to us God's question to Cain, "Where is your brother?" (Gn 4:9), urging us to to acknowledge migrants and refugees as our brothers and sisters and to recognize our complicity in their plight.

Pope Francis's visit comes at a time when more persons are forcibly displaced than at any time since World War II. War, conflict, persecution, human rights abuses and a largely indifferent world have driven nearly 60 million from their homes, including 13.9 million newly displaced in 2014. Children now constitute more than one-half of the world's refugees and 45 percent of refugees have been in exile for more than five years. As the United States, European Union and international community struggle unsuccessfully to develop coherent and unified responses to multiple crises, thousands lose their lives annually in perilous journeys across the Mediterranean (where 5,600 have died in less than two years), the US-Mexico border, the Andaman Sea, the Sahara desert, and elsewhere.

Pope Francis will enter a nation with a proud history of opening its doors to the world's refugees and dispossessed, yet one experiencing the greatest level of animosity, skepticism and opposition toward its own refugee protection programs in decades. In these circumstances, the call for solidarity will be timely and powerful. Francis will demonstrate the Catholic Church's solidarity in personal meetings with immigrants and (perhaps) by promoting the Global Freedom Network, an ecumenical initiative he has established to eradicate modern slavery.

The Holy Father might also articulate the core state responsibility to create the conditions that allow people to flourish in their home communities, what has been called the right not to have to migrate. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: "The fundamental solution is that there would no longer exist the need to emigrate because there would be in one's own country sufficient work, a sufficient social fabric, such that no one has to emigrate." Francis, in turn, has called for "the courage and creativity necessary to develop, on a world-wide level, a more just and equitable financial and economic order, as well as an increasing commitment to peace, the indispensable condition for all authentic progress." He will likely appeal for greater leadership by the United States in addressing the conditions that compel people to migrate and prevent their return home.

Nativist rhetoric has dominated the US presidential race in recent months, stoking fears of the loss of national identity and culture. One candidate has secured passionate support for his call to repeal birthright citizenship, a cornerstone of the US constitutional democracy and a signature pro-life immigration issue, and his pledge to deport all 11 million US unauthorized immigrants with their US citizen children.

Culture also occupies a privileged position in Pope Francis's vision of immigrants and national identity, but it cuts in an entirely different direction. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis states that the "revealed message is not identified with any" particular culture and that "cultural diversity is not a threat to Christian unity." In his view, all cultures need to be humanized and evangelized. In addition, authentic unity must be grounded in core values - justice, dignity, equality and solidarity -- that are necessarily embedded and imperfectly expressed in the diverse cultures of both natives and immigrants.

John-Paul II similarly appealed for unity "from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God, to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all within a communion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership." Francis has exhorted nations "to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis." He views immigrants and refugees as central participants in the creation of "a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place, or disposable." He has described immigrants not as a problem, but as "an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community."

Many US politicians and media figures rail against what they mischaracterize as "amnesty" (legalization) proposals on the grounds that they would reward "criminals." To Pope Francis, who has made mercy an animating virtue of his papacy, the concept of amnesty would not be anathema. He might point to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in Hebrew Scripture, which restored all residents of the community to full membership and a full share of the community's goods. He might remind us that Christians believe themselves to be the beneficiaries of history's greatest amnesty, an amnesty that changed their very destiny, and that they did nothing to earn.

Above all, Pope Francis will approach immigration through the lens of human dignity. He will oppose attempts to criminalize self-sacrificing people who have put down their roots, supported their families, worked hard, and contributed to the good of their new communities. Where others see lawbreakers, he will see family members, friends, co-religionists, colleagues and, most of all, "brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved." He may well remind US politicians and pundits of a bedrock religious principle: that human persons - created in God's image - cannot be illegal. If this were possible, then God - who created them - would be a terrible scofflaw and transgressor. And God didn't create illegal families, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, or, for that matter, illegal Muslims, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Jews or Catholics either.