Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, a naturalized American citizen, finishes a three-year term as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration this month. Northwest Catholic sat down with him in July to get his reflections on that role.
Why was being the USCCB’s migration chair important to you?
I was born in Monterrey, Mexico, pretty close to the border there, and my town was very much concerned about the migrants all the time. Because he saw many people moving as migrants to the United States for labor, my dad was very adamant in defending their rights. He was always saying, “Well, first of all, they are human beings and they have the right to look for a better life everywhere. But, second of all, the United States itself needs that kind of labor.” So win-win, as we say.
He was very much concerned about the political issues and ramifications of that. “Well, we never mistreat the Americans here in Mexico. American companies have been coming here and we never had a fight against them.” He was always bringing the history back, saying, “Well, all the southern states were part of Mexico before, so many of these people are not migrants — they are just going with their relatives back and forth as they used to, and then suddenly the border restriction is harder, and so it is not fair.”
So then, because of my passion for Hispanic ministry and it growing so rapidly in the United States, someone proposed my name as a candidate for chair of this committee. I was elected when I was not expecting it at all.
I’ve been very privileged to see all the wonderful work of the church in the United States trying to serve and minister to the migrants and refugees, not only from Latin America or Mexico, but from everywhere in the world. And it’s a wonderful thing to see.
I’ve been privileged to travel to many places — Asia, Africa, Europe and other places — to see the reality of how many thousands and even millions of refugees they have everywhere. Most of them are looking for a better life because they are in dire poverty.
But at the same time many, like in Syria right now, are leaving because of war or violence, and it’s very painful to see that, and to see all of this division, in many cases out of greed and power in the hands of very few people, and millions deprived of basic needs.
We deal with the same issues here, with migrants and refugees. And it’s not an easy issue to deal with because we know that Catholics in our own pews, in many ways, disagree with the approach that we, the Catholic Church, defend so much.
I would like to emphasize that of course every country has the right to protect its borders. And so the church has to defend that, and we have to preserve the Constitution. It was crafted by the citizens and for the citizens.
Of course, this is a nation of immigrants, historically speaking. And as Catholics, our faith has been perfected and developed and served by immigrants — the Irish, the German, the Italians, and now the Latinos and the Asians.
It’s something that we have to discover as a treasure, what the current immigrants are bringing — a new fire, a new energy to the Catholic Church.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo. Photo: Catholic News Service
How do you balance the country’s ability to protect its borders with the humanitarian aspect of helping those seeking a better life?
Every country has the right to create its own laws. Those are civil laws, not natural laws or divine laws. Right now, we can see every day in our neighborhoods, everywhere in the United States, that the immigration laws in this country need improvement.
At the same time, we have to be very honest that the world has become — because of globalization and the means that we have today to travel — a smaller dwelling place for all human beings.
It’s up to the government with the people to improve the laws, so that we can protect the people who are already citizens of this country, but at the same time keep offering that kind of welcoming policy we have had through history.
What do you think it would take to convince more U.S. Catholics that immigration should be more prominent among faith issues in the church?
I think it is a matter of faith. Jesus has made us brothers and sisters — everyone. We don’t say, “Those born in the same land as me are my brother or sister.” No. We, all human beings, are brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.
And so we, the baptized, are called to be disciples of the Lord and preach that through the world. We have the moral obligation of being diverse, developing new ways of putting into action that fraternity and that welcoming family openness for everyone.
At the same time, it’s a balance. In our own home we don’t say, “Let us open up every single door so that everyone is welcome.” But we also should not put 10 locks on the door because we are afraid of everyone. I mean, we are already living in fear instead of in that kind of freedom that we preach.
Most of these people coming to our borders are in dire need, seeking a better life, or fleeing tremendous violence or threats to their lives. And as the Declaration of Independence says, we are all created equal under God and everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I have traveled many places and seen the incredible misery, not only financially, but in the deprivation of people’s liberty. And in spite of that, human beings are human beings, and they are looking just to serve and to love their families.
Was there a particular trip that sticks with you?
I would say two special moments struck me.
The first was when I visited a detention center for women and children near San Antonio. When I saw women and babies detained there like in a prison for months and months and months — and most of them after fleeing from violence, hatred and poverty in Central America — that was really ripping my heart out. Those kinds of people are not a threat to our community, at all. Women and children.
And these babies growing up in their first years in a closed environment, surrounded by guards and barbed wire. It was devastating, excruciating to see that.
The other moment was in Myanmar. There are thousands of refugees due to internal war and persecution, just because of ethnicity. Some people are not counted as deserving any rights just because they are a different ethnicity.
Even in a very poor country, I saw people with a lot of money. Small groups hold all the wealth of the nation, and all the rest are in horrendous misery. And that pushes people to do whatever they can to survive. And I’m talking about little girls engaged in pornography or prostitution, even parents selling their own children in order to survive.
It made me cry to see that reality, that in 2016 we still have those issues in our world. And people being so blind, defending their own status or position or wealth, and not promoting a little better situation for everyone. I would say this is the evil one still acting very strongly among us, dividing us and not allowing us to see the face of a human being.
What can the average Catholic do to become more aware of migration issues?
I would invite everyone to see the kind of services that we have every day and we take it for granted. Who is providing those services? I’m not talking about just going out to visit fields and seeing the people that are raising our vegetables or fruits. No, no, no. Here in the city, just the maintenance things in hotels and restaurants and resorts and every single thing — to see the people that are doing all the services and just start talking to any of them.
And they will discover a human being, and they will discover how wonderful these people are and how joyful many of them are just because they have a job — even though, for us, it’s a very insignificant job. And they are grateful for having it, and for living, and having the opportunity to serve.
As you wrapped up your time as chair, the November elections were approaching. Any comments as far as politics and migration issues?
It was sad for me that despite continuous dialogue with President Obama and other government leaders, we couldn’t reach immigration reform, which is necessary and urgent. And I don’t know if the future is brighter. It doesn’t look like it with the politics that we are having right now.
Because of the horrendous, awful, unspeakable terrorist attacks, people are very much afraid in the United States that we have immigrants or refugees that are terrorists and a threat to the nation. And of course, we are not trying to convince the government to put down the borders or to water down the screening of people that are coming to this country. By no means.
But we Christians and Catholics are the beacons for doing that in a dignified and welcoming way, because this is a welcoming country for migrants.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Northwest Catholic - November 2016