October 04, 2019
Most Rev. Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington

How can people of faith work to build a culture of encounter when it comes to migrants and refugees? 

That was the question at the heart of an event hosted by the University’s Center for Cultural Engagement on Oct. 1. The lunchtime discussion, entitled, “It’s Not Just About Migrants,” included the Most Rev. Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington. 

Bishop Dorsonville reflected on Pope Francis’s words related to the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which is held every year on Sept. 29: “The problem is not that we have doubts and fear. The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed, and perhaps even without realizing it, racist. In this way, fear deprives us of the beauty to encounter the other, the person different than myself. It deprives us of an opportunity to encounter our Lord.” 

Bishop Dorsonville said a theme the Pope often talks about is the modern “culture of indifference” in which people concern themselves only with their own needs. “Solidarity is a call not to serve just myself, but to see what is beyond,” he said. “That’s why Pope Francis calls us to go to the periphery, away from our comfort circle to find out where is the real opportunity to grow in encounter with others.” 

By getting to know migrants and refugees as people with serious reasons for emigrating, Americans can serve them with more empathy and love. The bishop is particularly troubled by the situation at the Southern border where immigrant families have been separated and incarcerated with “a total lack of respect for the human person.” 

“One of the main questions is how can we become advocates for them, how are we going to continue to pray for them, and how are we going to walk with them,” Bishop Dorsonville said.

Associate Professor of History Julia Young provided a historical overview on immigration attitudes throughout U.S. history. Though the U.S. is in “a particularly dark period” currently, she explained that we had similar periods in the early 20th century when state policies led to harsh treatments of those deemed as “foreigners.” Thanks to the work of advocates, including the National Catholic Welfare Conference, founded by the U.S. bishops in 1919, attitudes began to shift toward more cultural acceptance and support for immigrants. A particularly positive development happened in 1965, she noted, when immigration policies expanded to allow people to migrate based on family reunification and career skills. 

“The laws were not perfect, but they allowed for huge increases of immigration,” Young said. “Those developments can give us hope and a better blueprint for our future.” 

Young also spoke about the work of activists locally and along the border who are advocating for immigrant rights. This summer, Young was one of 71 Catholic protesters who were arrested during the Catholic Day of Action, a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol which protested the inhumane treatment of incarcerated migrant children. 

“Change will take time, perhaps decades to achieve, and the work will be ongoing. In the meantime, many more people will be likely to be hurt or even killed because of unjust policies around the world,” Young said. Still, “immigrants and their allies across the world will continue to fight … we must work to welcome, protect, and integrate.”  

William Dinges, a professor of religious studies, reflected on how the migration crisis ties in to the Catholic Church’s mission in the United States. 

“This is not just about migrants and refugees,” he said. “This raises issues and concerns about us — you and me — who we are as persons of faith, followers of Christ, and Roman Catholics … This is about who we are as citizens, people in our national identity and who we are as a nation of immigrants.” 

Dinges said “fear of the other” has guided much of U.S. immigration policies historically. In the early 20th century, many of the same fear mongering tactics were used against European Catholic and Jewish migrants, he said. 

“Hatred and fear toward one particular group rarely stands alone,” he said. “When expressions of contempt for one group become normal, that hatred will become evidence for other groups. Like an arsonist’s fire, it almost always burns well beyond the intended target.” 

Catholics should “hold each other and our institutions accountable so that we cannot remain indifferent to the sufferings of others,” Dinges said. “In one of the most explicit passages of the New Testament, we hear that people will be judged by how they treat the hungry, the poor, and the least among us. Let us take heed.” 

During a Q-and-A following the discussion, Dinges linked the probable causes for the rise in U.S. anti-immigrant sentiment to heightened economic inequality around the world. “Addressing that fear and what is driving it is essential,” he said. 

Young said there are varying opinions in the Catholic Church, where an estimated 62 percent of white Catholics voted in support of President Trump and his “anti-immigrant sentiments” in 2016. She said the Church needs to recognize differing Catholic communities in the United States that need to be brought together for dialogue. One way she does that is in her classroom at Catholic University. 

“We have Catholics of all varieties [studying] here, including Catholics who feel very strongly against immigration in the United States,” she said. “It’s not good that we’re polarized from each other, but it is good to create these opportunities for dialogue.”