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Pope Francis's powerful condemnation of how America treats immigrants

As expected, Pope Francis's speech to Congress on Thursday included a passage calling for the humane treatment of immigrants. And as you might predict, the Democratic side of the room was more enthusiastic than the Republican side (though everyone applauded lines about being descended from immigrants). But don't let the applause mislead you: If you focus on what Francis is actually saying, it's a really radical critique — and a bipartisan one. He isn't just targeting Republican rhetoric; he's going after Obama administration policy — and, for that matter, the entire premise of the way the US takes in refugees.

It's possible Francis's accent just kept members of Congress from being able to understand the full impact of what he was saying. But here's the text:

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. 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. 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. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. 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" (Mt 7:12).

At first blush, this might sound like Francis is siding with (most) Democrats against (most) Republicans: that Latin American immigrants to the US, regardless of legal status, are just looking for a better life for their families and should be treated with compassion. And that is part of what he's saying. But he's not just talking about unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States, to whom Democrats have been eager to show compassion. He's speaking in the context of the current global refugee crisis. That's an issue where, under a Democratic president, the US government hasn't come close to meeting the standard Francis is setting — especially when responding to people "led to travel north" from Latin America.

Think back to the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of Central American children and families crossed into the US seeking asylum. This was referred to (here and elsewhere) as a "migrant crisis," but the people coming here were in the same situation as people coming to Europe from Syria and elsewhere this year: They were trying to get officially recognized as refugees. But for most of them, things didn't work out well at all:

  1. Because there were so many seeking refugee status, they overwhelmed the system to process them.
  2. Because they overwhelmed the system, the public began to panic about people "streaming" across the border.
  3. Because of the public panic, the Obama administration reacted by getting the Mexican government to intercept families trying to come to the United States, and by locking up and trying to deport thousands of families who had already arrived.

The entire response to the Central American crisis was based on being "taken aback by their numbers." As families in detention have gotten the chance to present their individual stories before a judge, they've overwhelmingly been allowed to stay. Individually, their stories are compelling. Collectively, the US government was scared by their numbers.

When it comes to taking in refugees from abroad, the US is even more defined by numbers. Secretary of State John Kerry announced over the weekend that in 2016, the US would raise its annual refugee quota from 70,000 to 85,000. That's still short of the number of Syrian refugees alone some groups are calling on the US to take (and that's before the 85,000 is carved up into regional targets).

Historically, the refugee cap has given the US plenty of room to make a difference. About half of all refugees who are permanently resettled in a third country are resettled in the United States.

But the scope of the current global crisis is simply bigger than what's been seen before — the UN estimates that 336,000 refugees from the Middle East alone will need to be resettled in 2016. As a result, for the first time, the US's quota-based refugee system no longer looks like a world leader, but instead seems relatively cramped and stingy.

But just as the US was thoroughly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people seeking asylum from Central America last year, Europe and the rest of the developed world are overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees trying to seek asylum this year — and the response, in both cases, has been to treat them as a "flow" rather than as individual asylum seekers. As Europe's current inability to deal with the refugee crisis shows, that's a very difficult pattern to break out of — either in policy or in cultural attitudes. Pope Francis called out the temptation "to discard whatever proves troublesome." But he's calling for both parties in the US (and politicians around the world) to do something very, very difficult indeed.