Pope Francis has intruded into American politics again, riffing critically on border walls and capitalism. Once again, serious Catholics, including me, are dismayed by the holy father’s ignorance on the issue.
Francis’ remarks— especially his comment that “those who build walls will become prisoners of the walls they put up”—reveals an incomplete understanding of the crisis. Were he to acknowledge the entirety of the current crisis at the border, including the egregious actions of human smugglers and human traffickers, his prodding might find better currency among American policymakers.
As it is, however, his statement displays an unfortunate disregard not only for the sovereignty of the American nation-state, but also a truly unfortunate ignorance of how generous America has been to the poor and vulnerable, especially those who appear on our borders and shores.
Francis has decried the building of a wall, and the free market, which he continues to conflate with the crony capitalism of Latin America. What an irony, considering that Central American migrants are leaving their homelands because those nations have neither the rule of law nor the economic opportunities that the pope rightly wishes everyone to have.
His comments aggravate a crisis that threatens to destabilize American society—which, if successful, would do more harm to those migrants and the entire world than any border wall ever would. Why deny Americans their right to sustain what makes America a beacon of opportunity, not only for themselves, but also for many across the world?
Why does Francis ignore the fact that, for America to live up to its ideal of being a safe harbor for the “huddled masses,” it must first protect its ability to exist as a nation-state?
Our ability to do so is threatened, as recent data on border crossings demonstrate. More than 4,000 migrants per day cross the U.S.-Mexican border, straining American resources so significantly that U.S. Border Patrol can no longer keep up with the flow. This rate—well more than 100,000 migrants per month—will not abate any time soon. But plenty of observers, including Pope Francis, utterly dismiss the overwhelming strain that this tide of migration has placed not just on our border law enforcement, but on American resources generally.
Democrats, for example, dismiss the crisis. In a Senate hearing recently, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) claimed that border crossings “are still at a historic low compared to other times in our nation’s history.” That’s false, as CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan pointed out immediately, noting that we’re on track to see 700,000 border crossings this year, nowhere near a historic low.
Claiming there’s no crisis helps those who are the real purveyors of evil—the human smugglers who are taking advantage of migrants. For example, U.S.-Latin American policy expert Ana Quintana recently reported: “In February, border officials apprehended a record 76,103 people, the highest number ever over the last five years. Human smugglers have learned to use children to exploit U.S. immigration law. Of the February apprehensions, 47 percent (or 40,325) were family units with children. This represents a 67 percent increase from January.”
Those facts, for whatever reason, have not penetrated Francis’ default position, which evinces a habitual criticism of the American experiment. His views toward American immigration policy, for example, are colored by his distorted views of the American free market—which in turn are jaded by his experience with Argentinian cronyism.
Besides needing to understand the differences between a real market and a crony market, Pope Francis needs to recognize that encouraging border security is the best way to improve the lives of the poor and vulnerable. The reason is simple: for centuries now, millions of people from every populated continent have migrated to America for freedom and opportunity. The American system was—and I think, still is, for now—predicated upon the rule of law.
That notion is no nebulous intellectual construct. It’s the basis of our system of exchange, both materially and civically. For that foundation to be sustained, the integrity of the American nation-state must be preserved through all available means, including border security, and yes, in some locations on our southern border, even a wall.
The clincher is not what Pope Francis is mistaken about. It’s what he’s ignoring.
Human trafficking has reached historic levels. While the precise number of border migrants who are being trafficked is impossible to ascertain, what is not in doubt is that the border crisis has exacerbated the problem. Mexican drug cartels now have a profitable product (human beings) to rival their original one (drugs). Whether the value of their trafficking operations is $500 million or $9.5 billion, it is too much, and should be ended, ideally with the pope leading the effort.
This myopia ignores that America, with all its warts, has exemplified how a civil society can minister to and protect the poor and vulnerable while also defending its borders. The Migration Policy Institute’s figures show that there are approximately 45 million immigrants in the United States, or nearly one of every seven persons in this country. The percentage of foreign-born, 13.7 percent, is inching closer to the all-time high, reached in 1890, of 14.3 percent. Those statistics do not indicate a nation that is anti-immigrant or unconcerned about the plight of the vulnerable.
If anything, the pope should be celebrating—not denouncing—that history. Moreover, he could best help migrants by encouraging American policy makers to sustain and cultivate what has made America so appealing to migrants in the first place: the opportunities that exist because of our custom of the rule of law. Catholics in America ought to be more vocal in saying as much, because our brethren to the south, who desperately want better lives, need the vibrant civil society that a properly enforced border will sustain.