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Canadians debate asylum-seekers to Quebec, and Pope Francis has something to say about it

August 26, 2017
(CNS Photo: A Haitian refugee sticks his head out from a tent set up by the Canadian Armed Forces near Lacolle, Quebec, Aug. 10.)
Some 6,000 people, mostly Haitian nationals, have crossed illegally into Quebec from the United States since July. This is the second major upswing in the number of asylum-seekers to Canada this year after hundreds crossed into Manitoba beginning in January.
The serge has sparked curiosity about Canada's immigration and refugee laws, which many commentators have pointed out are complex and rather strict. Exact numbers are difficult to verify, but approximately 50% of refugee claimants are denied asylum after what is an uncertain and grueling bureaucratic process.
That process, as the CBC's Robyn Urback has pointed out, doesn't really mesh with the mantra of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that, "Regardless of who you are or where you come from, there’s always a place for you in Canada," via Twitter March 16th.
So what do we do? Laws are not so easily changed or amended, and all signs point to a massive increase in the global number of migrants and refugees for years to come. A few thousand people are trickling in now, but that will change, and even a geographically isolated country like Canada will be dramatically affected.
As fate, or providence would have it, the Pope's message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees was issued last week. The official World Day of Migrants and Refugees is not until January 2018, but it's typical of the Pope to release such messages months in advance for Catholics and others to prepare for the occasion. Providential, as I said.
This message is particularly important to highlight, not just for its timeliness. The Pope has a special concern for migrants and refugees, having visited Lampedusa in 2013 and challenging our "globalized indifference" to their struggle for a better life. He even created a new department in the Vatican specifically focused on migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking. The department functions under his personal direction.
The Pope's message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees reflects a deep understanding and sensitivity to the issue. Here are the "papal points" from the message Canadians should consider as we respond to asylum-seekers entering the country illegally:
  1. Welcome: we need to offer more and simpler avenues for asylum-seekers to enter legally. Practically speaking, the Pope suggests, we should increase the number of private and community sponsorship programs.
  2. Protect: regardless of their status (legal or illegal), asylum-seekers should be granted freedom of movement, work opportunities, access to means of communication, access to national healthcare.
  3. Promote: asylum-seekers must not only be welcomed, they should be empowered. That means granting freedoms and tools that help people reach their full potential: keeping families together at all costs, freedom of worship, opportunities for employment and education, language instruction, etc.
  4. Integrate: asylum doesn't happen when someone physically crosses our border. It's an ongoing process of encounter and relationship building. Integration isn't assimilation, the Pope warns, but rather an openness to better understanding each other and building community together. The principle of subsidiarity is important here: integration can't be a government policy, it happens at the grassroots level, in municipalities, towns, churches, hockey rinks.
I'd like to make one final observation about the Pope's message, and it has to do with why this approach is necessary and credible, despite being challenging, expensive to implement, and perhaps unpopular, even among some Catholics.
Let me preface this point with some context. It's common to read Catholic bloggers and commentators debating the proper interpretation and implementation of the Church's social teachings on an issue like migration. There are Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals who use our Church's social teachings piecemeal and with casuistry to justify a narrow, un-Christian ideology.
But I find that Francis always takes a different approach. Instead of using the Church's various teachings to justify his own perspective, he tries to highlight the most fundamental teachings which give direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. By constructing a worldview on a few fundamental teachings, he ensures that the approach he advocates is grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus first, and does not deviate from it.
So, in the case of his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis repeatedly makes reference to the dignity of the human person. Human dignity is the preeminent principle of Catholic social teaching. By invoking this principle, Francis can call nations to act in ways that may seem irresponsible at first, for example, concerning asylum-seekers he writes, "collective and arbitrary expulsions of migrants and refugees are not suitable solutions, particularly where people are returned to countries which cannot guarantee respect for human dignity and fundamental human rights." This statement has real consequence for the manner in which we treat asylum-seekers who enter Canada illegally. But it is based on the promotion of human dignity above all else, which is a direct expression of the heart of the Gospel. In other words, non-negotiable.
Take another example from his message: "The principle of the centrality of the human person obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security." This is a fiercely challenging statement to developed nations in particular, who tend to prioritize national security (however they see it) above all else.
The point is, Francis's insistence on welcoming asylum-seekers is not challenging because he wants to make life difficult for countries like Canada. They are challenging because they come from the Gospel and are non-negotiable; principles like, the promotion of human dignity. However the processing of asylum-seekers takes place, protecting their fundamental human dignity comes first. At the very least, Christians should understand where the Pope is coming from. As Francis once said, "a person who thinks only of building walls, wherever it may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel."
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