Resettling Refugees: USCC’s Yeoman Service

Anti-Catholic hatred is still one of America’s more popular forms of bigotry. The evidence shows up persistently: in the vitriolic speeches of Jimmy Swaggert, or the ubiquitous posters (claiming that the Vatican secretly owns…everything) and leaflets distributed by Tony Alamo, or the cartoons of Jack Chick. And the same sort of hatred shows up, equally regularly, in the American Catholic Conference’s daily mail.

Of all the enduring themes in American anti-Catholicism, probably the hoariest is the idea that Catholicism is an un-American faith, a Church full of “foreigners.” Just recently, I received a postcard — unsigned, of course — printed entirely in crude block-capital letters. “OVER 90% OF ALL ILLEGAL ALIEN SCUM,” my correspondent informed me, “ARE CATHOLIC PARASITES.”

Somehow, I doubt that the person who wrote that postcard is reading this magazine. (Especially the big words.) But whether or not one shares his sentiments, any reader can certainly understand that immigration — both legal and illegal — is still a crucial topic for the American Catholic Church in America.

Say what you will about the U. S. Catholic Conference and its various affiliates. This much is undeniable: Catholic

Church agencies do yeoman service on behalf of those who immigrate to the United States. (Much of the material that follows, detailing Catholic efforts to help immigrants, was drawn from an address delivered by Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh to a Vatican conference on migration.)

Take refugees, for instance. The U.S.S.C. alone helps to resettle nearly 50,000 families a year — over 40% of the total influx among those classified as refugees. (That figure does not include illegal immigrants who have been assisted in entering this country by Catholic Church workers active in the Sanctuary movement.) In fact, the overwhelming majority of officially recognized refugees are fleeing from Communist oppression in East Asia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of legal immigrants do not come from Latin America. On the list of countries from which people legally immigrate to the U.S., Mexico is admittedly at the top by a comfortable margin. But the next several countries on that list are Asian: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, India, and Laos. With the exception of the Philippines, few of those countries could be sending many Catholics to these shores. So the involvement of the Church is not a matter of institutional self-interest.

Nor could the Church involvement be dismissed as political — at least, not in the ordinary meaning of that term. In 1983, when the U.S. bishops called upon the government to accept more refugees from Central America, some critics saw a connection with the bishops’ dim view of Reagan Administration policies toward the region. But in 1978, the bishops had issued a similar call for more liberal allowances to be extended toward the Vietnamese “boat people.”

In fact, the Church in America has been issuing calls for liberal immigration policies for over a century. For anyone who subscribes to the classic anti-Catholic view, that fact is proof enough that the Catholic Church is un-American: Catholics, you see, want to let “foreigners” into the country. Needless to say, the bishops can make the opposite case. As descendants of immigrants, Catholic Americans still believe in the virtue of open immigration policies. Isn’t the most authentically “American” attitude the one possessed by people who move to this country in pursuit of their dream?

Of course, the Sanctuary movement poses political questions of a different sort. It’s one thing to ask the government to change its policies and quite another thing to defy those policies. The Sanctuary movement operates on the premise that many destitute immigrants are in effect refugees, whether or not the Immigration and Naturalization Service recognizes them as such. So, defining the terms “refugee” and “asylum” according to their own predicates, the Sanctuary workers help transport these illegal immigrants to “asylum” in the United States.

To date, the Sanctuary issue has attracted relatively little attention outside South Texas. But the first batch of arrests, announced earlier this year, suggest that the federal government has begun a serious clampdown. Within the Church, the persistent work of Sanctuary supporters has caused one prelate, Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, to disband his entire diocesan justice-and-peace staff. We are probably seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

Immigration and refugee aid is only one of the underappreciated services of the U.S.C.C. Everyone recognizes that Church agencies also contribute an enormous amount to the care of needy people overseas. But the disastrous famine in Ethiopia has served to emphasize that service. Almost without exception, on-the-spot accounts cite the positive role played by Catholic Relief Services in easing the pain of starving Ethiopian refugees. The situation has been brutal, for two reasons: the scope of the problem is enormous, frustrating the efforts of even the largest charitable agencies. And the Ethiopian government has bedeviled relief efforts, imposing a welter of self-serving pettifogging restrictions on foreign aid. Still, somehow, the CRS effort has circumvented the government’s restrictions and delivered aid to those in need.

As this column goes off to the typesetters, several U.S. bishops are in Central America, visiting Church and government leaders in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. When asked about the purpose of their visits, the bishops have given an unprovocative reply. This is a get-acquainted mission, they say; the U.S. bishops are interested primarily in hearing the views of their confreres in Central America.

No one should object to that mission. Quite the contrary. In past months, this column has complained that our bishops are receiving a highly colored interpretation of events in Central America, filtered through the bias of the U.S.C.C. staff. Now, several leaders of the American hierarchy are hearing the news directly from the source. Could it be that the bishops are following the advice of “USCC Watch”? We can only hope. But it is interesting, isn’t it, that the U.S.C.C.’s head “expert” on Central America, the inimitable Tom Quigley, remained at his desk in Washington.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.