One hundred and seventeen days after ascending to the papacy, Pope Francis took his first official trip outside the Vatican to visit the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. Closer to Tunisia than Sicily, Lampedusa had been a transit point for migrants from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe for decades. In 2013, the burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis had brought Lampedusa to the world’s attention as thousands were arriving at its shores, untold numbers perishing in the surrounding sea.
Holding religious objects made from the remnants of the boats that had crashed against the island’s rocks, the pope opened his homily with, “Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.”
While it was a papal visit devoid of the typical pomp and circumstance, it was an indication of how deeply committed Pope Francis—the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere—was to migrants. The humility of his journey, the power of his homily, and the significance of the symbols he chose created a connection between the individual lives of migrants and the systems that made their journeys so dangerous.
Over the ensuing years, as Pope Francis’s words and actions trained the world’s eyes on the record flows of migrants, their situation worsened. The European Union, soon followed by the United States, externalized their borders to the south and east, outsourcing the functions of immigration enforcement to other nations. Italy attempted to prevent migrants from even reaching Lampedusa by striking an agreement with Libya to detain migrants at sea and hold them in deadly detention camps. The Trump administration forced the hands of Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries to harden their borders through militarization.
Approximately eight years after visiting Lampedusa, in December of 2021, Pope Francis travelled to Lesbos, Greece, home to some of the largest refugee camps and detention centres in the European Union.
With authoritarianism on the rise around the world, immigration had become the tip of the spear of those seeking to undermine democracies. Pope Francis lamented, “History teaches us that narrow self-interest and nationalism lead to disastrous consequences.” Yet, in a world where we will have “more and more contact with others,” Pope Francis powerfully observed that we live in the “age of walls and barbed wire.”
He continued, “To be sure, we can appreciate people’s fears and insecurities, the difficulties and dangers involved, and the general sense of fatigue and frustration, exacerbated by the economic and pandemic crises. Yet problems are not resolved and coexistence improved by building walls higher, but by joining forces to care for others according to the concrete possibilities of each and in respect for the law, always giving primacy to the inalienable value of the life of every human being.”
Wound together by societal forces at once divisive and isolating, these walls and barbed wire now define national movements bent on keeping out the other—an other most often defined by blinkered categories of ideology, nation, race, class. Gleefully weaponized by politicians and media entities that capitalize on these divisions to build narrative power, they slowly but surely erase our memory of those civil spheres that yet exist and could heal our battered communities. Instead, we find ourselves increasingly living in psychic prisons that keep us from relationship and collective moral progress.
The Syrian refugee crisis that Pope Francis spoke to in 2013 framed the way in which both the US and Europe have responded to modern migration. At the peak of the crisis, in 2015, when approximately 1.3 million Syrians requested asylum in Europe, only 1,682 Syrian refugees resettled in the US. But politicians were happy to weaponize these numbers, making local communities across the US ground zero for a deeply partisan immigration debate.
Twin Falls is a small city of approximately fifty thousand in rural southern Idaho. Over the course of the 2010s, as leadership committed the city to becoming an agricultural hub, the region’s unemployment rate plummeted from nearly 10 percent in 2010 to under 3 percent by 2017. There was no lack of good-paying work.
But southern Idaho was changing. The community was twice as Hispanic as the state overall, with a foreign-born population more likely to only speak Spanish when compared to the rest of the state. This was on top of triple-digit percentage increases in the Asian and black populations in the first decade of the century.
Economic change and population growth of this magnitude in any community is a challenge; in a rural, conservative community, it is a trigger for high conflict. Add the kerosene of conservative news feeds like Breitbart News and InfoWars, then warning that a coming influx of Syrian refugees would threaten the lives and livelihoods of “everyday” Americans, and things rapidly began to spin out of control.
Economic change and population growth of this magnitude in any community is a challenge; in a rural, conservative community, it is a trigger for high conflict.
Even though the number of Syrians who would make it to Twin Falls would be tiny, the political effect of the global refugee crisis was massive. A September 2015 community forum attracted seven hundred people to hear from city and federal officials about potential Syrian refugees. Two months later, Idaho’s governor joined nearly two dozen Republican governors across the country to bar Syrian refugees from resettling in the state. The fear was palpable.
Then in 2016, the situation exploded. An immigrant youth attacked a young girl in Twin Falls. The fears and resentment that had been simmering just beneath the surface burst out into the open. National conservative media outlets arrived in town to spread rumours that the girl had been attacked by Syrian refugees. Civic leaders were harassed. An effort to end the College of Southern Idaho refugee resettlement program was launched.
What had started as a local story about an awful incident became a national news event that paved the way for then-candidate Donald Trump to claim that halting Muslim immigration would “Make America Great Again.” At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, he called for the halting of Muslim immigration, “until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses.”
Trump was tapping into something more energizing than political or racial identity. He was leveraging migration to deepen the distrust Americans had in their existing government. In Twin Falls, as in rapidly changing communities across the country, growing disconnects between local and national, between the rhetorically contemptible and the culturally spotlighted had been leading more and more residents to ask, Who is the government to decide what is good for me or my family? Who is the government to decide who can live in my community, and where they come from? Citizens were seeing decisions made by corporate suites and legislative offices as deliberately out to steal their identity, their livelihood, and their very ability to secure the future for their children. A radical subsidiarity was emerging, one where local control was willing to flirt with authoritarian power.
Spheres with Windows, Not Walls
Subsidiarity on its own is part and parcel of a well-functioning democracy. The creative tension that comes as centralized authority and local leadership negotiate differences can result in better decisions. But when that subsidiarity is radicalized by forces that benefit politically from polarization, the bonds of community get hijacked by a new kind of menace. Walls of suspicion shoot up. We begin to dull our radar to a blunt sorting mechanism, shutting out those whose belief on one matter must imply a stack of other beliefs that places them outside our framework for the good. Anonymity chokes particularity; caricature trounces persons.
Has even local ground lost the capacity for common ground in these years of walls and barbed wire? Is there a path to make our spheres more porous?
Perhaps counterintuitively, we must begin with the fear. In 2018, the National Immigration Forum embarked on an effort to convene Living Room Conversations. In my forthcoming book, Crossing Borders, I wrote about one of them:
When a group sat down for a Living Room Conversation, the first question we would ask was, “How do you identify yourself?”
In Southern California, a February 2018 conversation included a woman who, with her husband, had planted what grew to become one of the largest evangelical churches in the state. Their socially conservative beliefs defined their lives and underlying values. About 10–12 years ago, they realized their community was changing. That there were more Latinos in their city, coming to their church.
To this first question, she responded, “I’m very vanilla, very boring . . . small business owners, conservative, Republican, Christian.” The conversation then shifted to immigration and how conservative communities and families felt about a changing America.
As her eyes welled with tears, she told us, “I can’t have that conversation with my brother or my dad about anything political. Without it becoming absolutely unbearable in seconds. . . . Their reaction is driven out of a sense of fear. That they are going to lose their security or identity.”
As I watched her speak, I saw the pain on her face, heard the anguish in her voice. I realized that she was struggling to be a better person to immigrant families. But that she might lose her family along the way.
The emotion that was making it difficult for her family to talk about something like immigration was the same fear as what the nation faces today: A belief that immigrants are threats to the nation’s culture, security, and economy.
The Living Room Conversations allowed the Forum to realize that fears of immigration often begin with a perception that the immigration system is out of control. As a result, people feel they run the risk of losing something: their culture, their safety, their economic livelihood, their identity.
But these fears can be addressed through the variegated spheres in our lives: our faith, our belief in the rule of law, our endorsement of free markets. At best these spheres inform each other, leading to a more nuanced understanding of our communities as they are and as they will be. At worst, these spheres morph into rigid in-groups of political identity that become obstacles to a greater sense of community, much less the common good.
Begin with the fear. And then ask: How might we build some doors and windows into our spheres, fewer walls and less barbed wire?
In Twin Falls, an unlikely group of allies emerged to answer this question: dairymen.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of dairy-farm jobs in the region increased tenfold and the number of dairy-processing jobs increased almost fourfold. Together these 7,200 jobs made up almost 12 percent of employment in the six-county area in 2015. With their economic contributions came the dairymen’s political clout in conservative circles.
Bob Naerebout, then the executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, saw the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a moral crisis. He knew the dairymen had been on the sidelines of the 2015 Syrian refugee debate. He knew they could not make the same mistake. Most importantly, Naerebout knew that what was happening cut against his faith as an evangelical Christian.
Over the course of 2017, Naerebout pulled together local elected leadership, law enforcement, key immigrant and refugee leaders, faith leaders, as well as business leaders from the agriculture sector and beyond. Soon they had organized the Unity Alliance of Southern Idaho and were ready to speak with one voice into the key civic spheres of Twin Falls.
The dairymen—conservative white men in a community dominated by conservative white men—led southern Idaho to see immigrants and refugees in a different light. They invited Hispanic business leaders to fundraisers for local politicians. They partnered with immigrants and refugees in education and advocacy efforts. They supported a Latino arts festival in Twin Falls. They supported the resettlement of refugees from around the world.
The dairymen’s leadership extended across the civic spheres of rural Idaho. They saw how economic liberty intersected with religious freedom so that welcoming the stranger was morally and economically the right thing to do. They cut through walls and barbed wire to open windows into the dreams and aspirations that all residents of Twin Falls shared, helping Idahoans see that no matter where one was born, there was a deep investment in the common good of the community.
As the moral agents who rallied Twin Falls around a renewed sense of community, the dairymen engaged the institutions that shaped the region. Leveraging the tenets of welcome laced throughout their faith traditions, evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons began to welcome a growing Muslim community. Politically, the mayor, police chief, and members of the city council stood together. And, of course, the business community, from milk producer to milk processor to adjacent industries, saw the value of immigrants and immigration to Twin Falls.
Turning Our Fears into Love
The threat of radical subsidiarity looms large in this politicized era. Fear in each of us is so quickly unleashing a kind of psychic authoritarianism where our nervous default is to exert control over the unknown. Responding to fear with love requires the leaders most affected by the unknown future to step out in courage and lead their community with grace.
The healthier forms of subsidiarity we so desperately need requires we understand the anxieties our friends and families face. Dismissive responses to very real emotions will lead only to retrenchment and anger, ratcheting up enmity and further paralyzing our politics. But a choice to begin with a blank slate and inquire into the particular beginnings of fear’s life can crack open those yearnings common to our humanity, leading to surprise dialogue, reconciliation, and local solutions that advance the common good.