The emergency caused by coronavirus has made the situation of many vulnerable people even more precarious; it has also highlighted that immigrants are essential to the fabric of our society, Cardinal Michael Czerny says.
The cardinal also urged local solutions to address the needs of immigrant and refugee families around the world.
Speaking to CNA over Skype in Rome, Czerny highlighted that immigrants often fill jobs of an essential nature in their adoptive countries.
“Who are the orderlies and the cleaning people and who are the support staff in the hospitals? Who are the people who are picking the fruit and vegetables that we really do need to receive?” he asked.
“Who are the people who are taking care of our elderly or challenged people or other people who need support and care?” he asked. “Many, many, many of them are people in these categories [of migrant or refugee], who are here doing the work because it’s the work we need.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, governments have significantly restricted the entrance of migrants and refugees into their countries. Some nations, including the United States, have allowed temporary visas to be given to those who do jobs classified as essential, such as farm and seasonal work or meatpacking.
Czerny underlined that “until now, we sort of took them for granted – and some political forces even tried to use them for political advantages – but the fact is, they are essential supports for our societies and for our communities and for our families.”
“And suddenly, the COVID-19 spotlight reveals that without the help of these people, we can’t go on.”
Czerny, 73, is a Canadian Jesuit who has led the Vatican’s migrants and refugees office since 2017. Pope Francis created the office, part of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, appointing Czerny as under-secretary and the pope himself its official head.
Czerny, who has spent around 20 years in Rome, was given the red hat by Pope Francis in October 2019.
Speaking with CNA about the effects of the coronavirus, the cardinal compared jobs often filled by immigrants to legs on a table.
“The underpinnings, the neglected and invisible underpinnings, are being pulled out and now we’re realizing how our societies actually work and our communities actually work,” he said.
On the other hand, Czerny explained, due to COVID-19, already-vulnerable people are even more vulnerable both to illness and to exploitation, “whether they are migrants… or asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking or internally displaced people.”
In Italy, for example, the coronavirus has closed borders, thus preventing the arrival of seasonal workers, usually mostly from Eastern Europe, into the country. Italian farmers depend on seasonal migrant workers for harvesting their spring crops.
In April, the government relaxed measures to allow undocumented immigrants already in Italy to work in agriculture to make up for the labor-shortage.
Now, the government has introduced an amnesty, a “regularization,” measure for certain migrants working in agriculture or domestic labor to receive temporary legal status in a bid to prevent criminal organizations from exploiting them for cheap labor.
This would also allow migrants to be eligible for healthcare, a prospect which Czerny praised.
The cardinal said some countries have created pathways for immigrants to receive healthcare, realizing “the virus doesn’t distinguish between citizens and migrants. You’ve got to stop the virus wherever it’s spreading.”
Despite these measures, reports indicate that exploitation of undocumented migrants for slave labor is likely on the rise during lockdown.
Czerny said with countries enforcing quarantines, a lot of international movement has stopped, yet, people in desperate situations continue to try to find work or safety, so some “movement continues, and unfortunately criminal activity continues.”
“People who are vulnerable and in despair continue to be taken advantage of. Movement of that sort, that is very risky, continues.”
Reports say that during the pandemic migrant boats have continued to land on the island of Lampedusa, located between Sicily and Libya, and refugee reception and processing centers, sometimes called “hotspots,” are already at or above capacity.
Czerny said “our hope is that the crisis of coronavirus will encourage the authorities to regularize, to make more regular and easier, the passage of people who need to move, because, for example, they’re needed in various sectors, industries, and services.”
“So, let’s not continue this blatant contradiction: saying ‘Yes, let them come and help us,’ but, ‘No they’re not allowed to come,” he urged. “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The cardinal said that while immigration is often spoken of as a “global crisis,” solutions are best found on the local level.
“There are no global responses, there are only local answers,” he emphasized.
“You see why our Migrants and Refugees Section is most interested in what’s going on on the ground, at the borders, on the Mediterranean, in the farm belts…”
His office is connected to local churches, national bishops’ conferences, and the organizations that work with them, the cardinal said.
“We’re very happy to accompany them and, especially, to try to respect the real conditions in each place,” he noted, adding that what helps in one place will not always help in another.
Czerny highlighted the Catholic parishes at the U.S.-Mexico border, which spiritually support people in both countries.
He also praised a Chicago parish which has been giving out baskets of food to immigrant families. The people at this parish “are discovering concretely” who their neighbors are and what are their needs.
These are ordinary people, who, being unable to work because of COVID-19 are prevented from earning the money they need to buy groceries: They are “not only locked in, but worse: totally locked out.”
Czerny said: “It is a wonderful example of Christ’s charity at work not only to meet the immediate needs but also to open our eyes to discover who our brothers and sisters actually are.”
The Church around the world has been responding “very generously and very effectively” to the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants, often by just helping with basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare.
Cardinal Czerny has a personal connection to immigration – he and his parents moved to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1948, when he was two years old.
He told CNA that before his position in the Migrants and Refugees Section, immigration was not an issue he worked on in a focused way.
“So when this became my principal focus, I was rather surprised to find how relevant my past was … This I discovered because, as people in very different difficult situations would describe their challenges, I would recognize and understand, ‘I know, as that’s what we faced too,’” he said.
“So it has been consoling. Surely it allows me to empathize, to sympathize, with what I am being told, when I hear about their situations.”