Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago greet asylum seekers in 2017 at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas . (CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Extension.)

"Lacking moral sense, laws are in vain"- St Thomas Aquinas

Originally Appeared in : 9903-1/31/19

Most readers of this column would agree that if the law forced a physician to perform an abortion, that physician would be morally obligated to follow his or her conscience, refuse the patient’s request and break the law. Yet these same readers may be unable to accept this moral imperative to protect life in other cases. 


In order to justify harsh and often brutal treatment of those seeking asylum or migrating to our Southern border, many who consider themselves pro-life argue that breaking immigration laws is such a serious offense as to warrant inhumane treatment. 


First, it’s important to distinguish what is and what is not against the law. Seeking asylum at the United States border is not illegal, no matter where that asylum seeker attempts to enter. Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals (from anywhere) who meet the international legal definition of a “refugee.” This definition was incorporated by Congress into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.


Many asylum seekers present themselves to the authorities for processing, and their cases are then adjudicated through the U.S. Immigration court system. The vast numbers of unaccompanied minors and families seeking asylum from parts of Central America have put a strain on our court system, but these asylum seekers are not breaking the law, U.S. or International. 


Treating them cruelly when they arrive by separating parents from children and detaining them in prison-like settings is immoral and does not serve as a deterrent. Desperate people literally running for their lives are forced to take desperate actions. And they cling to hope for an outcome better than their current, life-threatening conditions. 


Second, there are many who have entered this country seeking economic opportunity. These entries are considered illegal, and first time offenders are charged with a misdemeanor. 


Another way immigrants break the law is by overstaying their visas. Even though most discussions of a border wall fail to admit it, overstaying a visa is actually the most common way people enter this country illegally. 


Because some, including our current government, wish to discourage both asylum seekers and those seeking economic opportunity from attempting entry, they justify punitive measures believing that such measures will prevent people from attempting the journey. 


Rather than offer humanitarian and legal assistance, our government offers detention, obstacles, and sometimes separation of families. These harsh measures are perpetrated against people who, for the most part, are migrating to save their lives or the lives of their children. 


According to a report “Understanding the Central American Refugee Crisis: Why They Are Fleeing and How U.S. Policies Are Failing to Deter Them” (February 2016) produced by the non-partisan group American Immigration Council, asylum seekers are aware of the difficulties they will face at the U.S. border, but they come anyway. The authors write: “We have strong evidence from the surveys in Honduras and El Salvador in particular that one’s direct experience with crime emerges as a critical predictor of one’s migration intentions.” The authors also report “those individuals who do decide to migrate and successfully arrive at the U.S. border are far more likely to fit the profile of refugees than economic migrants.” 


Cruel and punitive measures perpetrated against these refugees are not only ineffective, they are immoral. 


Punitive measures are also being used to thwart humanitarian aid. Recently, four women volunteering for the group “No More Deaths” were convicted of felonies for leaving jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants crossing the desert on an Arizona wildlife reserve. In 2001, 14 migrants died in one incident (possibly abandoned by smugglers), and since 2001, 155 have been found dead. Some officials estimate that more than 100 persons perish in the desert every year. Water and food were offered as lifesaving measures because so many migrants have perished in the desert.


Volunteers with the “No More Deaths” organization believe it is morally reprehensible to deny water and food to people who would otherwise die. Thus, these women broke the law and are now suffering the consequences for respecting life. Video has circulated of Border Patrol agents dumping out water jugs and collecting the canned food left for migrants. These agents’ actions could result in people dying in the desert. 


The actions of the authorities are unduly punitive, indeed life-threatening, and the actions of the volunteers are morally upright. Breaking the law, in this case, is justified, even if just one life is saved. 


Ultimately, the law of love is what Jesus taught us, and it’s the most important law we follow. We can never justify cruelty, especially against those who are escaping hardships we cannot begin to comprehend. 


For Christians, when it comes to human life, the argument is never about legality or illegality. It is about protecting life — all life — at all costs. 


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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