EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is covering the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! Donate today to make more of this reporting possible.
In a historic first, Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress today, exhorting the American public to find compassion and brotherhood to embrace immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere. The address offered an elegant symmetry with the scene near the White House yesterday, when a young girl from an undocumented family asked his help in getting legal status for her parents.
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.… On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” Pope Francis said. “Is this not what we want for our own children?”
In a nearly hour-long speech, the pope made his case for greater openness to immigrants and refugees—he did not distinguish between the two—by citing American history, scripture, and people’s common humanity. The pope urged against turning our “back on our neighbors and everything around us” and “repeat[ing] the sins and errors of the past” by reenacting the violence with which the first immigrants to the continent treated Native Americans.
Pope Francis’ remarks landed in the midst of multiple, fractious crises, as Syrian and Afghan and Iraqi refugees have fled to Europe for their lives and as the United States grapples with the ongoing fallout of its own child migrant crisis from Central America and the political campaigning of Donald Trump, who’s found popularity and controversy with his bald shows of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” the pope said, acknowledging that he too is the son of immigrants who left Italy for Argentina in the 1920s. In doing so, the pope appealed to a higher show of inclusivity and humanity than has defined the current conversation about immigration, especially in the campaigns of the most popular GOP presidential candidates. Our fates are intertwined, and our responsibilities to one another and the most vulnerable in particular are shared, the pope said.
His speech Thursday was but the most expanded of his remarks on the topic of immigration, which he’s made a central theme of his US visit. In an address on the White House lawn Wednesday, the pope referenced immigration immediately. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” Francis said in front of a seated President Obama in just the second sentence of his public address to the nation.
Later in the afternoon, a 5-year-old girl from Los Angeles named Sophie Cruz punctuated the pope’s visit with her own plea for legalization for her family in a moment so precious and stirring it appeared to be surely staged. To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t. As the popemobile rolled past tens of thousands of cheering, screaming crowds along the National Mall, Cruz, in braids and an embroidered tunic, slipped past the barricades.
A security guard stopped her, and escorted her back toward the edge of the fencing until the pope stopped the procession and called the little girl over to him, The New York Times reported. A security guard picked her up, and lifted her to the pope. The little girl and the spiritual leader of 1 billion people in the world embraced. She left him with a T-shirt and a letter, which she later read out loud.
“I want to tell you that my heart is sad,” Cruz said she wrote, The Guardian reported. Cruz, “an American citizen with Mexican roots,” was born in Los Angeles to undocumented parents. “I would like to ask you to speak with the president and the Congress in legalizing my parents because every day I am scared that one day they will take them from me.”
“All immigrants just like my dad help feed this country. They deserve to live with dignity. They deserve to live with respect. They deserve an immigration reform.”
Cruz had a sympathetic audience in Pope Francis, who delivered her message to Congress today.