National Migration Week: Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay

Encounter at Catholic Charities


“Everyone tells me they’re ‘illegal.’ But I work with them, and I know they’re good guys. So, they couldn’t be illegal, right?”

Mike, a senior in my Catholic Social Teaching class, had sought me out after our lesson on immigration, with concerns about his co-workers at a landscaping company.

“Could they be in the United States without status and be good guys?” I answered his question with one of my own.

Although this conversation took place 15 years ago, the current rhetoric used in both the news and political debates covering the topic of immigration continues to make it challenging for many U.S. citizens to answer my question in the affirmative.

Still, Catholic Social Teaching has always pointed us in this direction.

For well over a century, popes and bishops have written about the rights of migrants.

With this history, it should come as no surprise that Justice for Immigrants (a campaign founded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and comprised of numerous Catholic organizations, including Catholic Charities USA) has chosen for this year’s National Migration Week theme, “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.”

And yet, this theme is tested daily in our country and our Church.

The complexities regarding immigration abound.

From the ever-changing policies to the impossible visa backlogs, from laws that need to be challenged to the root causes that must be addressed — immigration is not an easy topic to discuss.

But my former pastor at a Cleveland parish comprised of immigrants from 16 different Spanish-speaking countries would regularly remind us that immigration is not a topic that needs to be debated.

Immigration equals people.

It’s not just a legal matter or a political issue.

It’s a call for compassion.

Pope Leo XIII noted in his 1889 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, that people do not leave their homelands when the means of providing a decent and happy life for themselves and their families are already present where they are.

Over a century later, National Migration Week invites us to consider the root causes of migration — the reasons people leave their homelands — and to see immigrants with eyes of love rather than through a lens of suspicion.

Root causes of migration include persecution, violence and war

The threat of violence is hard to dispute.

And as someone who has lived a life free from violence, it’s a situation I don’t even want to imagine.

What would I do if my loved ones were in danger?

Our Family Immigration Services department began its operations decades ago as a direct response to refugees fleeing war.

Today we continue to serve families escaping persecution and wars.

We are currently working with hundreds of Afghans who cannot return to their home country due to Taliban rule.

While many of these families migrated together; some of our clients have been separated from their spouses and children for nearly two years.

Just last week, I heard an Afghan client plead with my co-worker across the hall, “No need green card. No need citizen. I just need my wife.”

Other common root causes for migration are poor wages and a lack of jobs

A few days ago, I met with two members of a mixed status family of five.

Both parents came to the U.S. 23 years ago seeking a better life for their young family.

One parent came on a non-immigrant, tourist visa and never returned home.

The other parent arrived without a visa.

The oldest child, who is now in their mid-20’s, has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) which temporarily keeps them safe from deportation and gives them permission to work.

The other two children are U.S. citizens.

With the laws as they are right now, the DACA recipient and the parent who entered the U.S. without a visa have no options to adjust their status and obtain a green card while remaining in the U.S.

A decision made 23 years ago — one motivated by love for their family and the dream of a better life — continues to haunt them.

Every family decision — whether it’s renting an apartment, buying a car, enrolling in school, obtaining a job, visiting a doctor, driving a vehicle, and countless other daily choices — involves weighing the risks.

What could happen to the family members without status?

And as a result, what will happen to the children with status?

There are well over half a million DACA recipients from 138 countries living in the United States.

At least 22 million people live in mixed status households.

And Family Immigration Services works with both of these populations every day.

“Could they be in the United States without status and be good guys?”

Of course!

But I asked Mike the wrong question all those years ago; because the immigration debate isn’t about immigrants.

It’s about us, the debaters.

How we treat people who aren’t model immigrants is also how we treat our U.S. born neighbors who aren’t model citizens.

And if we’ve decided that human dignity is up for debate and treat it like it’s something that could be bestowed or withheld based on a person’s conduct, then we’ve already lost.

Instead, the question must always be: How are we being invited to love?

As we answer this question daily, may we all be free to choose to migrate into a spaciousness that knows no limits of compassion.

And may we all be free to choose to stay in the love of the One who first loved us.

Marissa Flores Madden is a DOJ Accredited Representative practicing immigration law at Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri in the Family Immigration Services program.

Catholic Charities has been providing immigration legal services for over four decades — reuniting countless families and helping clients navigate the intricate and often challenging U.S. immigration system.

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This week has been designated National Migration Week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For over 40 years, the Catholic Church in the United States has celebrated National Migration Week, which has traditionally been linked to the Vatican’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees — scheduled for September 24 this year.

As in year’s past, National Migration Week will use the theme chosen by the Holy Father for his World Day of Migrants celebration: “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.”

This theme calls attention to the conviction that persons have a right not to migrate and if a person migrates it should be done by choice and not by necessity.

More information on National Migration Week can be found on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) website at