On Monday, Pope Francis I traveled to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to commemorate North African migrants who died trying to get to Europe. The Pope’s choice to focus on migrants on his first official trip outside of Rome is the most potent example yet of the religious community’s growing investment in immigrant rights.
During his visit to Lampedusa, the Pope laid a wreath in the Mediterranean Sea to commemorate the almost 20,000 North African migrants who have died in dilapidated and overcrowded boats in trying to reach Europe. He also dedicated a half day to speaking with migrants who survived the treacherous journey.
“These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace,” he declared. “They seek a better place for themselves and for their families — but they found death.”
The Pope’s homily celebrated the compassion of the people of Lampedusa who take in migrants and condemned exploitation by traffickers:
We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.
Lampedusa is the site of almost daily migrant boat interceptions and deaths. But migrant deaths are hardly unique to the Mediterranean Sea. In the United States, over 450 immigrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border last year. Undocumented immigrants crossing the borders face kidnappings and extortion by smugglers, heat exhaustion, rape, and abandonment by “coyotes,” who are paid to help them smuggle across the desert.
Desperation and poverty drive Mexican migrants to enter and re-enter the United States despite these conditions — much like the North Africans who risk death on rickety and overcrowded boats to Lampedusa.
Pope Francis’s speech makes him the highest-ranking religious figure to call for more humane treatment of immigrants. This is not the first time that the Pope has shown compassion for migrants. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he called exploitation of migrants “slavery” and charged that all who ignored their abuse were complicit in their silence.
Within the United States, other Catholic heavyweights like Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Nuns On the Bus have prioritized immigration reform as one of their top concerns. Across the nation, local faith leaders are fasting and holding prayer vigils for immigration reform.