President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States has an eerily familiar ring. More than a century ago, immigrants were pouring into our country from places that were not the traditional homelands of U.S. citizens. Most of them believed in a different religion. Their rituals were strange. Many did not speak English.
They were Catholics — from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Poland. Many were poor. They were seen as a threat to the Protestant core of the United States. The Know-Nothing Party ran candidates that actively opposed Catholic immigration. The Ku Klux Klan used fear and violence to intimidate the new arrivals.
The most potent charge of this opposition was that these newcomers would bring with them radical political beliefs; that instead of being loyal to their new country, they would follow the secret, mystical and dangerous dictates of the leaders of their religion.
As a result, Catholic higher-education institutions — such as St. Thomas University, which I lead — developed to serve these immigrants and their children. A strong belief in education and service drove an array of religious orders to open Catholic schools and colleges, particularly in cities where the public education system was designed to counter their presence.
From this vantage point, it is tragic to see some in our country again use religion to divide us, to separate loyal Americans from “the other.” Catholics, 150 years ago, were “the other.” Now it appears to be Muslims.
Our faith tradition calls on us to “welcome the stranger.” We certainly recognize that in the 21st century, this cannot mean open borders. We understand that the United States must ensure the safety of its citizens and have an immigration system that includes the thorough vetting already in place. The question is, Should that system be based on reason and compassion, or prejudice and fear?
The Catholic Church knows firsthand that these refugees are not our enemies. They are fleeing the same terrorists who would do us harm and are therefore our allies in this fight against nihilistic violence. These refugees are being assisted through the efforts of Pope Francis and many Catholic Global agencies here and around the world. We, too, should be welcoming them, letting the world know — by our actions — that the United States remains a beacon of hope, giving life and light to those who would tell Muslims that we are their enemy.
It has been generations since our Catholic educational institutions were necessary for the protection of an oppressed immigrant group. Now those of all faiths come to our campuses, seeking an environment in which faith and morality are taken seriously. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are an important part of our academic communities. From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of Muslim students enrolled at Catholic colleges and universities more than doubled. At St. Thomas University, 40 percent of our students are non-Catholic. They come here for many reasons, including our emphasis on and openness to faith development.
Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, wrote in opposing the administration’s recent action: “We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope.”
Let us all act out of the love that is the basis of our faith and the hope that decreed religious freedom on our shores, that raised the torch of the Statue of Liberty to welcome those yearning to breathe that freedom.
Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale is the president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. He is chair of the board of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.