Much of our Christmas observance has been sanitized to consist of warm fuzzy feelings. So it is not surprising that we forget that while Christmas celebrates the coming among us of the Prince of Peace, his coming was indeed “a sign of contradiction.”
We underplay the fact that the pregnant Mary and her husband, Joseph, were turned away from the inn. We forget the slaughter of the Holy Innocents — and that the infant Jesus was spared their fate only through the hurried flight into Egypt where the Holy Family lived for years as what today we would call “political refugees.”
Yet this is the Christmas reality experienced today by the ever growing numbers of migrants and refugees throughout the world. Indeed, today there are more than 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons living in our world — the greatest number since the end of World War II. Close to one-third of these people are from Syria and Iraq. And most are surviving in desperate circumstances. And, truth be told, many fail to survive at all.
Yet, in spite of this profound human suffering, many here in our country would shut our doors in the faces of those looking for a safe haven.
The United States has in the past 30-40 years generously resettled hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and its aftermath — Vietnamese from Southeast Asia, Kosovars from the Balkan region, and many African nationalities such as Congolese, Somalis and Sudanese, among others.
In the 1990s, nearly 90,000 refugees were admitted yearly. Given the immensity of the overall refugee population then, even 90,000 was a relatively low number. Yet it was more representative of the American people’s humanitarian traditions than the numbers admitted in the aftermath of our national tragedy of September 11, 2001.
We cannot give into our fear and retreat into the mindset of a “fortress America.” Certainly, given the enormity of what happened on 9/11 or what happened last month in Paris, one should not easily dismiss a certain anxiety about national security. But, in fact, refugees coming to the U.S. do pass security checks and multiple interviews. Sometimes the vetting process can take up to two years.
Certainly we can and should look at strengthening the already stringent screening program; yet we can do that while still continuing to welcome those in desperate need. Security fears should not be used as a smoke screen to justify heartless and senseless policies that would close our doors to victims of terrorism as the Bethlehem innkeepers closed their doors to the Holy Family that first Christmas.
The plight of the Syrians as well as the refugees from Iraq is desperate. These refugees — both Muslim and Christian — are extremely vulnerable families, women and children who are fleeing from brutal violence of the Syrian conflict, including the brutality of ISIS, which was responsible for the Paris attacks.
As Pope Francis said to the U.S. Congress this past September: We should “respond in a way which is always human, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7: 12).”
If we see the refugees as “persons” and not as “problems,” our great nation can continue to be a haven to those who, like Mary, Joseph and Jesus of yore, still flee from modern day Herods.
Thomas G. Wenski is archbishop of Miami.