Dear President Biden,
As a young Jesuit, I write to you gravely troubled by the way your administration is treating asylum seekers. As the Church celebrates this National Migration Week, my heart is weighed down by the many families waiting in a perilous limbo on our nation’s southern border. Like the Holy Family, they fled their homes in need hoping for a foreign nation’s hospitality. Your administration has fought to exclude them and other asylum seekers, using public health law Title 42 to expel migrants and deny them even the chance to make their case. This week, the nation watched DHS brutally use the law to round up and expel thousands of Haitian migrants from our border. Like many families I know, they never had the chance to exercise a basic right we promised them: the right to ask for asylum.
From summary expulsions to the lethal environment it creates, Title 42 is personal for me and my Jesuit brothers. Our faith moves us to walk with migrants and refugees as humanitarian workers, pastors of immigrant parishes, and scholars. Our horror grows daily as we witness the suffering caused by this brutal and baseless policy. Many of us tuned in for your message celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Jesuit Refugee Service last fall. Your remarks resonated with us, especially your understanding of how “JRS believes that in the stranger we actually meet our neighbor.” My brothers and I felt confirmed by your conviction “that every society is ultimately judged by how we treat those most in need.”
As we look towards our border today and the state of asylum access for those who need it most, that standard of judgment echoes in our ears and in our hearts. We can only conclude that as a country, we are failing, shamefully and gravely, with deadly consequences for those most in need. Title 42 has prolonged and exacerbated a humanitarian disaster at our southern border, keeping those fleeing for their lives in a dangerous limbo between the violence they fled at home and our country’s broken promise of asylum.
Although your government initially fought some of the policies that kept these families in peril, that fight has come to a grinding halt. Instead, your administration has ramped up efforts in courts and on the border to use Title 42 to expel asylum seekers. You have said that those fleeing their countries should wait at home, applying for asylum from their own countries. For those running for their lives, this is almost never an option. From the Israelites who were told to eat the Passover meal with staff in hand, to St. Joseph’s dream telling him to flee into Egypt, our faith tradition recognizes the immediacy of that need to escape.
I have seen this urgency in action all year. Just a few weeks ago, a young mother on the Arizona border told me how the mafia had come for them, brutally beating her as she fought to protect her little girl from traffickers. They escaped to another part of Mexico. Hundreds of miles away, they received death threats indicating that their persecutors trailed them. They fled again straight for the American border and the hope of asylum it offered. Now they wait in fear, praying that America will relent before they are found. They could not wait and apply for asylum from home without facing abduction and death.
Just after Title 42 was extended this summer allegedly to protect public health, a young mother and father broke into tears as they told me about their sick little girl. She had been perfectly healthy when they tried to ask for asylum in Texas. Instead of listening, Border Patrol used Title 42 to imprison them and over a thousand other migrants under a bridge for 5 days. They were forced to sleep in the dust, causing the mother to cough up blood. When the child ran a fever, officers told her mother that there was no medical care available. As DHS flew them to Arizona to expel them, both mother and daughter were sick with illnesses that they contracted while detained in the United States. The public health excuses used to justify Title 42 fail in practice and in theory.
As you wrote in Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan’s collection of testimonies from Central American migrant children, politics is personal. We invite and challenge you, Vice President Harris, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to join us in forming those personal relationships. Come visit us on the border, meet the families this policy hurts, and listen to their stories. We and the migrants we accompany would love to receive you.
Today, the Jesuit-sponsored Kino Border Initiative and their allies in the Save Asylum campaign act in the tradition of the holy prophets to remind us who we are and who we must be. Asylum seekers and their supporters, humanitarian workers, and my brother Jesuits will gather on both sides of the border and in cities around the country to demand protections for asylum seekers. They join the whole Church, on the eve of this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, in calling for the rights and dignity of the holy families of our time.
Alongside those on the border, whose hope in God has led them to hope in our country, we call on you to restore the right to asylum. This requires an immediate end to Title 42. As Jesuits, we remind you of the mission we share and the commitments to migrants that you and our nation have made. We pray that your administration, with the grace of God as your aid, will live up to them.
Michael Petro, SJ