The Migrant Caravan, Catholic Principles, and International Humanitarian Law

Read a perspective on the migrant caravan based on international law and Catholic principles.

A lot has been in the news lately about the “migrant caravan,” a group of thousands of migrants that originated in Honduras and has been traveling through Guatemala and Mexico on its way to reach the United States with the intention to seek asylum.

They have been described as vulnerable migrants fleeing violence and extreme poverty on one hand, and as criminals coming to do Americans harm on the other. There is certainly a different narrative from each side of the political agenda about the group.

President Trump has demanded that the governments of Guatemala and Mexico stop them from reaching the United States and send them back to where they came from, saying that he won’t allow them into the U.S. if they reach the border.

Mid-November update: 2000 migrants have now reached the border city of Tijuana, Mexico and have been living in camps whose conditions are poor. The U.S. asylum system at the border in Tijuana has the capacity to process at most 100 asylum seekers per day. Some Mexicans in Tijuana have been protesting the migrants’ presence.

Justice and Mercy

The Catholic Church says that we should bring two principles to our perspective on just about everything, but especially immigration: justice and mercy. While there are varying definitions of both words, I will be sharing the ones that I think are most in line with the Church’s intentions.


The quality of being just, impartial, or fair.


Compassionate treatment of those in distress.

What is an asylum seeker?

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC),

When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded. 

Essentially, an asylum seeker is a refugee who doesn’t yet have refugee status. However, according to descriptions of the people within the “caravan,” not everyone meets the definition of a refugee, which, also according to the UNHCR, the institution that grants refugee status to individuals, is

Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.

This means that individual members of the “caravan” who have fled their country due to extreme poverty are not refugees and would not qualify for asylum for that reason. Economic migrants do not have the same protections as refugees under international law.

What protections do refugees have?

The 1951 Refugee Convention, which Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States, along with almost every other country, are signatories to, gives refugees the following rights.

  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State.
  • The right of freedom of movement within the territory.
  • The right to be protected from refoulement. The definition of refoulement is the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

According to these protections, members of the caravan who are refugees or asylum seekers cannot be prevented from making their way to the United States by being arrested and detained or deported in Mexico or Guatemala, or in the United States if they end up reaching the U.S.

This means that under international law, some members of the caravan have protection from being stopped and punished while some do not.

Deciding who has this legal protection and who does not will have to be decided upon a case-by-case basis, determining why each individual or family participating in the caravan fled their country, which is quite an enormous task with thousands of migrants.

It would be much easier for these governments to repel the migrants, forcing them in mass to go back to Honduras (what President Trump wants), some of whom would likely qualify as refugees, making their refoulement from the countries of Guatemala, Mexico, or the U.S. illegal under international law.

Let’s get back to justice and mercy and “doing the right thing.”

3 Principles from Catholic Teaching

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the USCCB) has extensive teachings on immigration. They are essentially based around three principles.

  1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.
  2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.
  3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.

The Church teaches that immigration law and principles need to work “for the common good” of all people, not just for the good of people from one country or another. A key defense used against allowing in more immigrants is putting the needs (such as employment) of your own people first, but according to the USCCB, “A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others.” They also say…

“A country’s regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by concern for all people and by mercy and justice.”

This certainly does not align with what is described as the “America First” principle with regards to immigration. I certainly do not believe in “open borders,” but I do believe that the principles of justice and mercy should come before all else in how to treat others.

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