Refugees are not immigrants. They are stateless people who have been expelled from their homeland because of war or persecution. It is a distinction worth bearing in mind, even as the Catholic Church urges compassion for both groups as part of its mission to follow Christ’s call to “welcome the stranger.” (See Mt. 25: 35)
The Church does not teach that the legal status of a person is irrelevant. Few would dispute that every country, in order to ensure peace and security within its borders, has to have a legal process for admitting people. But life is complicated and often tragic and the Church refuses to turn its back on people who need help.
In recent statements, Catholic bishops have urged people to consider the plight of undocumented immigrants who come to this country to find a better life. Many of these families have lived here for many years and deporting them would be traumatic, especially for children who have never known their parent’s homeland.
Refugees present a different challenge. Because of war and persecution, they have no country to return to, no place to call home. Many end up in hot and crowded relief camps. We have seen this before. After World War II refugees streamed across national borders and international bodies had a hard time figuring out what to do with them.
The 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt called the refugees of her day “stateless people” and remarked: “All discussions about refugees revolved around this one question: How can the refugee be made deportable again?”
As Christians, Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops urge us to ask a different question. How best can refugees be found a new home? It could be in this country or another. But to insist that refugees remain stateless and without a home is not an answer any Catholic can, in conscience, give.
Yet for refugees to find a home some countries must accept them. Will the U.S. continue to accept refugees, or will our country begin to close the door on them?