Opinion + Voices

UCLA faculty voice: An immigrant pope for the age of mass migration

The pope calls on all to embrace their compassion now that the world is faced with the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II

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Pope Francis in Cuba
Tony Gentile/Pool via AP

Pope Francis has emphasized the ethic of care over the ethic of rules when it comes to the crisis of Syrian refugees.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
UCLA
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the Wasserman Dean and Distinguished Professor of Education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The cofounder and codirector of the Harvard Immigration Projects, Suárez-Orozco has authored multiple essays on mass migration for Pope Francis’ Pontifical Academies. This op-ed appeared Sept. 21 in the Boston Globe.

Millions of Americans are eagerly awaiting Pope Francis’ arrival.

In our interdependent and fragile world, the pope’s voice carries a deep echo: From global warming to inequality, from homosexuality to divorce, the pope’s message has a global resonance. Francis’ humility and humane touch surely befit our troubled times.

If we didn’t have Francis, we would have to invent him.

Francis has never set foot in the United States. He is a Spanish speaker coming to the United States, now home to the second largest number of Spanish speakers in the world. Like millions of Americans, he is the descendant of poor Italian immigrants who escaped the ravages of poverty to find shelter in the new world. By the time his father, Mario José Bergoglio, arrived in Buenos Aires almost a century ago, some three million Italians had left for the United States and another three million had left for Argentina. Mario José could just as easily have taken a steamer to Boston or New York.

Pope Francis is the distant relative from the Old World coming to see this side of the family for the first time. When his American cousins listen to the Pope, there will be joy and awe, enlightenment and wonderment.

Like in all such family reunions, there will also be misunderstandings.

Listen carefully to Francis talk about migration and the gap in understanding will be obvious. Two incommensurable sensibilities, the Ethic of Care versus the Ethic of Rules, will make for some awkward moments.

With 45.8 million immigrants, the United States leads the world in the absolute number of new arrivals. In our country, immigration is history and destiny: The fastest growing sector of the child population is the children of immigrants. Immigrants made America and, moving forward, the children of immigrants will remake it.

Two features are at the center of this rich history. First, our repudiation of descent or bloodline as the only means of entry into the American family. The seal defining our American identity, e pluribus unum, announces to the world that ours is, above all, a nation of “consent.” This explains the much lower bar of entry for immigrants to America than to other high-income countries. It also explains a shared reverence making the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the idea that ours is nation of laws our unique secular religion. Immigrants are welcome, like in no other country, as long as the Ethic of Rules reigns. Break the rules, migrate without papers, and the wrath of an indignant nation awaits you, today channeled with millenarian fervor by Donald Trump and his army of choleric followers.

We are witnessing a rapid rise in the numbers of migrants — voluntary and involuntary, unauthorized, and refugees. These flows have intensified, posing risks to millions of migrants. The tsunami of human suffering hitting the shores of Europe is challenging the institutions of transit and receiving nations alike. Europe — the continent that sent some 60 million souls to the New World in the last great migration — has become immobilized, its response anemic, its rules poorly matched to the pharaonic scale of human suffering. Over 430,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe by sea this year. The majority arrived in Greece (309,356). The undignified bickering in the European Union in responding to desperate migrants is Exhibit A for the limits of a sterile Ethic of Rules when facing the greatest human crisis since War World II.

For the Holy Father, immigration responds to an entirely different set of principles. Immigration is an act of care — caritas in the biblical tradition. When the Pope recently appealed to “the parishes, the religious communities, the monasteries and sanctuaries of all Europe to ... take in one family of refugees,” he invoked a 2,000-year–old habitus. In this light, immigration is an ethical act of and for the family. Protecting the family from the Herods of the times — war, collapsing states, obscene poverty, environmental cataclysms — supersedes the malleable and often-expediential logic of rules and practices of the state. For Francis an ethic of family nurturance, reciprocity, and caritas animates global migration. It is what drives Syrians and Afghans to Germany — Asians and Latin Americans to the U.S.

In any civilization, the Ethic of Rules and the Ethic of Care coexist in a delicate equilibrium. The sheer measure of the current migration catastrophe cries for a new balance. As Francis will softly insist: Today we need caritas.

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