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Church urges migration crisis to be approached with human dignity

The webinar on border management was organized by the Center for Migration Studies of New York
A Texas National Guard agent carries a migrant girl over a barbed fence on the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso, state of Texas, United States, border with Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico on Jan. 30.

A Texas National Guard agent carries a migrant girl over a barbed fence on the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso, state of Texas, United States, border with Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico on Jan. 30. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 24, 2024 05:59 AM GMT
Updated: February 24, 2024 06:02 AM GMT

Instead of hyper-politicizing the border, officials should find humane and workable solutions that can protect the dignity and human rights of migrants, said experts who work with migrants at the border during a Feb. 21 webinar.

The webinar "Telling the Truth About the Border: A Humane View of Border Management" was organized by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. It included interventions by those who live and have lived along the U.S.-Mexico border and could offer first-hand perspectives about the current situation.

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, who is the U.S. bishops' migration committee chair, opened the discussion. "Immigration is looked on by many as an enforcement issue, a legal issue or a social issue. From the church perspective, immigration is a human issue, specifically about the human rights and human dignity of the person," he said.

"The recent border agreement, which weakened asylum protections for asylum-seekers, among other items, would have violated human rights from the church's perspective," he said, referring to a recently-proposed bipartisan bill in Congress that was ultimately rejected.

"It would have made it more difficult for bona fide asylum seekers to even qualify for a hearing before a judge," the bishop noted, adding that such an agreement "would also have increased deportation powers for law enforcement."

The bishop said that combining fewer protections with increased law enforcement is a "dangerous formula" that would lead to the return of the persecuted to the dangerous situations from which they fled.

"We believe that there are ways to manage our southern border without sacrificing human rights," he said. "The border would stabilize if our elected officials looked at all aspects of our broken immigration system. An emphasis on legal avenues would protect migrants and asylum seekers, weaken smuggling networks and help meet our labor needs."

The bishop also said that the United States and other countries need to make a concerted effort to address the root causes that compel them to migrate, so that migrants and asylum- seekers can remain in their home countries and raise their families in safety.

Bishop Seitz suggested three principles when addressing migration: The right to asylum is enshrined in national and international law and cannot and should not be restricted; migrants should be treated with respect and dignity; and border control and management should be done in a way that protects human rights, human dignity and the right to due process.

"I encourage our elected officials to return to bipartisan immigration reform talks that repair an immigration system that is outdated and unworkable," he said. "Instead of using immigration as a political issue, they should show their statesmanship and find humane and workable solutions which serve both the interests of our nation and those who seek to migrate here."

Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, located in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, provided an overview of the current situation along the border.

She commended the great welcome and coordination between local governments and nonprofit organizations along the corridor of the border she works with. Meanwhile, she warned that many of these reception infrastructures "are at the risk of collapsing because of the lack of funding to continue to support that."

On the Mexican side of the border, she said, Kino is working mainly with people who are stranded in the city of Nogales, and although migration along the border is very diverse and international, they are still seeing mainly Mexican people trying to migrate to the U.S. In 2023, 76% of the migrants served by her organization were Mexican, and half of those came from Mexico's southwestern state of Guerrero, where factors such as insecurity, crime and corruption generate more forced displacement among the population, she said.

Guerline Jozef, founder and executive director of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance addressed problems faced by migrants fleeing from Haiti and countries, such as Guinea or Congo, on other continents.

"We all know what's happening in the Congo right now. We see people fleeing slavery in Mauritania. We see people fleeing war in Kenya and in Cameroon. In addition, we are also receiving people from Pakistan, people from Eritrea, people from Palestine right now. We are receiving people from Afghanistan," she said.

Jozef stressed that "people will flee their country of origin. Most of them will end up in South America, mostly in Brazil or in Ecuador, and they will walk -- and I repeat, they walk -- from Brazil, from South America, and they make their way to the U.S."

Most go by way of the Darién Gap, "one of the most dangerous places on earth," where "people are dying as we are speaking," she said, adding that her organization has gone to Darién.

"I can share a few stories with you so that you can really understand the impact of our policies and how we in the U.S. continue to push our borders all the way down to Panama, to Colombia, and other places, forcing people to have no other choice but to put their lives in the hands of human traffickers and smugglers in turn that kidnap them and sometimes even kill them," Jozef said.

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute of El Paso, Texas, addressed, among other things, the CBP One smartphone app -- which migrants seeking protection at the border are required to use to set appointments to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry -- calling it "a real systemic failure" that "it's just not cutting it for everyone who needs protection."

"CBP One is not working. It can be part of the toolbox of things that work, but the government needs to expand its capacity, streamline it, make it more flexible and make sure that we're prioritizing the vulnerable. Because right now, although it's working for many, it's not working for all. And that's why too many people are dying," he said.

Corbett also stressed that "the politics are not working." The border has become hyper-politicized, he said, and "is an obstacle to all immigration reform efforts, Republican and now Democrat."

"The actions of Texas in recent months, in recent years, in recent days, are truly demonic and fanning the flames of this politicization. And it's all political," he said. "When you get stuck in that logic of crisis, you can no longer see solutions."

Corbett also said there needs to be "a vision grounded in faith, grounded in hope, a structure and capacity to connect all the points of light between the border and the interior."

"There's no crisis of immigration," Corbett concluded. "There's a crisis of imagination, of vision, of human vulnerability, of violence against women, of inequality, racism, political expediency, scapegoating. That's the crisis. We need to disabuse ourselves of the language of crisis."

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