Refugees

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

6/21/99

Refugees

 

            Watching CNN during dinner one night, not long ago, I was surprised to see a former law student of mine, Kevin Appleby standing at a bank of microphones in Washington.  He was there with his boss, Mark Franken, representing the Migration and Refugee Services office of the U.S. Catholic Conference.   It made me proud of our Church and the work of our bishops. It also made me proud of the effects of Catholic social teaching on public policy.

            Kevin and Mark had been to a meeting at the White House to plead the case of the Kosovar refugees.  They were asking that these refugees not be sent to the Marine Base at Guantanemo Bay, Cuba.  Instead, they argued, these traumatized people should be treated like true refugees, not prisoners, and brought to the U.S. mainland.

            Initially the Clinton administration had wanted to send these poor people to Cuba because they would not be entering U.S. soil, and therefore would have no legal rights as refugees to stay in the U.S.

Our church argued that this was inhuman.    They should not be treated like prisoners.  They should not be sent to a prison camp, where they will be kept behind concertina wire and guard towers.  Where they would have to live in tents under a tropical sun.  They would have no schools, no hospitals, and no community support.  It would be taking them from one bad situation in the refugee camps in the Balkans to a worse situation in Cuba.  It was unworthy of us as a nation.

            Our church representatives and other refugee service organizations won the argument with the administration. Through their efforts the Kosovars are now being brought to Fort Dix, N.J. There they are processed and sent on to relatives or sponsoring agencies and families.  They can stay here or go home if they want.  This is a much more humane way to treat these people. 

            Most of the time the average Catholic does not get to see what the U.S. Catholic Conference does on our behalf.  It is a bureaucracy in far away Washington that we know little about.

            But in this case, it is a result we can understand and appreciate.  They were able to make a constructive change in policy.  Through the bishops conference we also had a chance to teach government policy makers a little about Catholic social teaching and the writing of the popes on the rights of refugees.  The principle of solidarity and human dignity mentioned so often in recent writings of John Paul II requires us to see every other human person as one like ourselves.

            Actually our church does this every day.  Over one third of the people who come to the U.S. as refugees each year from various countries are resettled through the help of the Catholic Church.  We could do more.  Even with the 20,000 refugees from Kosovo, the U.S. is still taking over 50,000 fewer refugees each year under the Clinton administration than we did under the Bush administration.  In light of our booming economy we could do more.  In light of the huge need right now in the Balkans we should do more. 

            In any case, we Catholics can be proud of the impact of our church in this situation. It is how the gospel changes and saves lives.