By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 18, 2014
ATLANTA—The bishops of Georgia have called on their faith communities to “seek opportunities to welcome and serve” the wave of unaccompanied immigrant children and teenagers and young families who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and are now being sheltered in various states, including Georgia.
Catholics should “recognize the face of Christ in each migrating person,” including these youngsters and other vulnerable people, said the 1,000-word statement released Sept. 18 by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Savannah Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.
The bishops advocate for increased protections for migrant children arriving in the United States without their parents, as well as families arriving with children.
“In the light of the Gospel and Catholic tradition, we recognize the face of Christ in each migrating person, and we must respond to these poor and vulnerable people just as we would to Jesus, who, from the first days of His life, became a migrant fleeing violence in His homeland,” the bishops wrote. “We acknowledge the inherent God-given dignity of every human being, particularly children and other vulnerable people.”
“Catholic teaching has long supported the principle that every person has the right to live in his or her homeland with security and with opportunities for living a life of dignity with opportunities for work. Yet, the right to security and human dignity may also compel individuals to migrate to other lands, when we must welcome them,” said the statement.
Privacy protects the young people from identification, but the bishops noted that some of those under the age of 18 who entered the country unaccompanied are now living in Georgia and part of their congregations.
“Certainly many of these children are living in our parishes today and will be looking to our parishes for help,” they stated.
This year, over 50,000 Central American children crossed the border from Mexico. The crush of youngsters escaped El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to flee poverty and violence, according to the federal government. Another 50,000 adults with children came across the southwest border. The numbers peaked in June and have dropped in July and August.
A 2008 anti-human trafficking law prevents the federal government from immediately deporting the children. Instead, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refers these under 18-year-olds to its Office for Refugee Resettlement, which arranges for them to be sheltered and provided for until their cases are heard by immigration judges.
The federal government has released some of the young people to family members and other sponsors to host them. In the first seven months of the year, some 1,412 boys and girls have been placed with sponsors in Georgia, most in six metro Atlanta counties.
Immigration is a key issue for the Georgia Catholic Conference, when it represents the church on public policy issues in front of state lawmakers.
Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the conference, said the bishops’ position is based on the dignity of every human person.
“The statement sees Christ and the Holy Family in those fleeing violence, and it calls for compassion, solidarity and a welcoming attitude toward migrating people,” he said.
In the upcoming days, federal lawmakers will be addressing these concerns, and the bishops are making the church’s position clear, he said.
While other news of national importance has bumped the immigration issue from the headlines, it is an issue facing lawmakers this fall.
“While the news cycle seems to have moved beyond this issue, the needs remain and Gospel teaching endures,” Mulcahy said in an email.
The church still favors comprehensive immigration reform, of which this is one part, but a bill seems unlikely this year, he said.
Moving into the fall, the bishops of Georgia are joining other bishops and Catholic organizations to ask officials to protect children’s rights and provide the necessary money to serve them, he said.
And over the long term, the bishops are continuing to educate legislators, Catholics and all people on the application of Catholic principles in an important area of public policy, he said.
The bishops in Georgia said they would like to see federal lawmakers support measures to increase funding to care for these children, while also increasing the number of immigration judges and lawyers to resolve the logjam of cases. Also, they said, resources should be directed to help alleviate the problems in Central America that spur the young people to leave their homes.
In their statement, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Hartmayer opposed reallocating money from existing refugee resettlement programs to address this new crisis, since those programs are providing crucial help to refugees from other parts of the world fleeing documented persecution or threats to their lives.
In 2013, Catholic Charities Atlanta resettled 276 refugees from countries including Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, the bishops noted.
On the parish level, the bishops are asking parishioners to pray for people living in dangerous situations and also to ask government leaders to develop humane politics.
Church nonprofits such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Charities Atlanta expect to receive more requests for aid. Catholics are asked to support them as they serve the needy.
The statement of the Catholic bishops of Georgia is available in Spanish here.