When Pope Francis stands at the U.S.- Mexico border on Wednesday, he will bring a clarion message from the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and protect the refugee is an ancient commandment.
The presence of the first Latin American pope at the border also symbolically puts the most influential religious leader on the global stage squarely in the middle of a fierce presidential election-year fight over immigration.
Donald Trump last week called the pope “a very political person” and implied Francis was being used by the Mexican government.
“I think Mexico got him to do it,” Trump sniffed, “because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”
A pope who travels to the margins as a witness to God’s solidarity with the poor and vulnerable isn’t playing politics. He is following the Gospel. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus radically redefined the definition of neighbor beyond language, religion and border.
Don’t expect Pope Francis to call out Donald Trump or cheerlead for Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). His challenge to a “globalization of indifference” tests liberals as much as conservatives.
But, unwittingly, Trump is onto something. In the best sense of the word, Pope Francis is political.
“A good Catholic meddles in politics,” the pope has said, a pithy summation that reflects centuries of Catholic teaching that views the common good and human dignity as the ultimate aim of politics.
The pope also has a global pulpit, and he’s not afraid to spend his moral capital. He played a key role in opening new diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, met with the president of Iran to give a boost to a historic nuclear deal, weighed in on U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and, during a visit to the Holy Land, prayed in silence before a dividing wall the Israeli government erected to separate Israel from the Palestinian West Bank.
Last fall, he became the first pope in history to address Congress. At a time when the politics of fear and xenophobia are ascendant, Francis reminded us of our own history.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he told Congress. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
His challenge to both Democrats and Republicans
The Obama administration, while taking important steps to offer relief to the children of undocumented immigrants, has deported more immigrants than any other in U.S. history. The hard-line stance, intended to persuade congressional Republicans to eventually support comprehensive reform with an earned path to citizenship, failed to convince House GOP leaders, who balked at taking up bipartisan Senate legislation.
The administration’s crackdown on Central American women and children fleeing gang violence was intended to, as Hillary Clinton callously described it in a recent debate, “send a message.” Vulnerable families don’t need a message from the most powerful nation in the world. They need protection and opportunity.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump warned of rapists and criminals crossing the border, stirring fear and anger with little regard to the facts. Before announcing his candidacy for president, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) broke with powerful Republican leaders to work with Democrats to support comprehensive reform. This political courage fizzled quickly once he aspired to the White House.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has also tacked right to appease a conservative base that sees any bipartisan common ground as unacceptable. In Iowa, the evangelical candidate told a 30-year-old woman who was brought to this country as a child by her undocumented parents that he supports deportation for thousands like her in the same position. There are “human tragedies when people break the law,” Cruz insisted.
At the border, Pope Francis won’t offer a specific policy solution to address a broken immigration system that tears apart families and leaves millions in the shadows. He is expected to pray near the Rio Grande river, where thousands have lost their lives trying to cross.
But the pope’s presence is a stark reminder to politicians and presidential candidates — especially those who tout their Christian values and court religious voters — that immigrants and refugees are not, in his words, “pawns on the chessboard of humanity.” Demonizing immigrants, talking tough about higher walls and promising massive deportation stirs up a base of angry voters on the campaign trail.
The hard work of governing requires practical and humane solutions to address the reality of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Any nation has a right to protect its borders, but as the U.S. bishops’ conference, Jesuit Refugee Services, the Evangelical Immigration Table and other faith-based groups that advocate for immigrants make clear, enforcement-only solutions will never address the root causes of why migrants risk death to come here.
In Mexico, Pope Francis reminds us once again that politics does matter because people’s lives are on the line.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”