The most iconic moment of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States before his address to Congress was surely when Sofía Cruz, a young girl with two undocumented-immigrant parents, broke through a police barricade and, once summoned by the pope, presented him with a T-shirt, a letter, and a hand-colored drawing. She wanted to implore the pope, she told reporters later, “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 away from me.”
She needn’t have worried. Thursday, the pontiff pointedly told members of Congress that “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past,” and explicitly called for a humane and inclusive approach to immigration. Amidst a speech clearly intended to engage US politics—on a range of topics including income inequality, climate change, the death penalty, abortion, weapons sales, gay marriage, and even the Iran deal—Pope Francis’ appeal on immigration stood out as the most passionate.
“On this continent…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,” said Francis, the first pope from the same Global South of which he was speaking. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
He continued: “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.’”
Francis acknowledged the paradox of the US immigration debate: that a nation of immigrants was itself turning against subsequent newcomers. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said. That’s a hopeful, but inaccurate (as the pope surely knows), description of a country in which Donald Trump leads Republican polling for president and deportations reached record highs under President Obama.
He also did not avoid the question of what the first European colonists, the original immigrants, did to the people they found in America. “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation,” the pope said. (He then tempered his criticism by saying that “it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present,” a line that members of Congress, perhaps incidentally but perhaps not, applauded much more loudly than the ones before it.)