Every January, the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates National Migration Week. This celebration always coincides with the feast of the Epiphany, in order to remind us that Jesus was not only the Prince of Peace but also the Migrant of Migrants. Although much of our Christmas observance has been sanitized to consist of fuzzy warm feelings, the fact is that the pregnant Mary and her husband, Joseph, were turned away from the inn. Subsequently, Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents – noting that the infant Jesus was spared their fate only through the hurried flight into Egypt, where the Holy Family lived for many years as what today we would call “political refugees.”
This is the reality experienced today by the ever growing numbers of migrants and refugees throughout the world. Indeed, the United Nations estimates that there are today in the world 11 million refugees – most surviving in desperate circumstances. And, truth be told, many fail to survive at all. Yet, in spite of this profound human suffering, doors are shut in the faces of those looking for a durable solution to their plight in a third country. For example, last year the United States admitted barely 54,000 refugees for resettlement, down from 74,000 the previous year. This is a disturbing trend in light of the enormous need internationally.
Most disturbing is the large number of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons as a result of the recently ended Iraq war. More than 1.5 million Iraqis live in neighboring countries, while more than 1 million are homeless and displaced within Iraq. The United States has a special responsibility to support these refugees and help ensure that they either return home safely or are integrated into their new countries or a third country. Yet, because of a complicated security process, 40,000 Iraqis who helped the U.S. military in the war remain in Iraq, at extreme risk. Nearly 30,000 other Iraqis living in Syria and already approved to come to the United States have been put on hold, pending further security checks. A large number are women with children. Many are in fact Christians who, having suffered persecution because of their religious belief, fled Iraq just as the Holy Family fled into Egypt.
Anxiety about national security is not to be easily dismissed. Given the enormity of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, it is certainly in great measure justified. However, we cannot give into our fear and neglect our responsibilities internationally, especially to the Iraqis.
New security precautions are in place. Our State Department now needs to act to ensure adequate procedures to identify and expeditiously process refugees in need of resettlement protection, especially those particularly vulnerable refugees such as unaccompanied minors, women-at-risk and populations which have been mired in refugee camps for years. Congress has authorized the admissions of up to 75,000 refugees in 2012 fiscal year. Security concerns should not be used as a “smoke screen” to mask bureaucratic inertia which threatens to leave these slots unfilled.
With good will, good management, and sufficient resources, it is possible to expand our admissions with no danger to our security. In this way, our great nation will continue to be a haven to those who, like Mary, Joseph and Jesus of yore, still flee from modern day Herods.