President Obama’s plan to essentially freeze most deportations for people who are resident and working in the United States would protect as many as 4.4 million people and their families. Nearly two million others are already shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which will continue.
“Mass amnesty would be unfair,” the president said in a televised speech to the nation last night. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character," he said. "What I’m describing is accountability—a commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
The president’s proposals have been generally warmly received by major Catholic bodies with the consistent caution that this latest effort to rationalize the nation’s immigration policies remains far from complete and still leaves too many undocumented people out. Generous family reunification policies have been a consistent demand by the U.S. bishops and other Catholic agencies concerned with immigration.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, M.Sp.S., auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, welcomed the Obama administration's proposals today in a statement.
“We have a long history of welcoming and aiding the poor, the outcast, the immigrant and the disadvantaged,” he said, in a statement released on behalf of the U.S. bishops. “Each day, the Catholic Church in the United States, in her social service agencies, hospitals, schools, and parishes, witnesses the human consequences of the separation of families, when parents are deported from their children or spouses from each other,” Bishop Elizondo said. “We’ve been on record asking the administration to do everything within its legitimate authority to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters. As pastors, we welcome any efforts within these limits that protect individuals and protect and reunite families and vulnerable children."
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and president of the U.S.C.C.B. said, “There is an urgent pastoral need for a more humane view of immigrants and a legal process that respects each person’s dignity, protects human rights, and upholds the rule of law. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said so eloquently: ‘Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected, and loved.’”
Bishop Elizondo added, “I strongly urge Congress and the President to work together to enact permanent reforms to the nation’s immigration system for the best interests of the nation and the migrants who seek refuge here. We will continue to work with both parties to enact legislation that welcomes and protects immigrants and promotes a just and fair immigration policy.”
Bill O’Keefe, Vice President of Advocacy and Government Relations for Catholic Relief Services, called the president’s plan “a temporary solution to problems in our outdated and unjust immigration system; and a ray of hope to the hopelessness in much of Mexico and Central America.” He added, “Ultimately, however, unless the conditions in migrants’ countries of origin are addressed on a larger scale, children and families will continue to leave.”
A CRS statement pointed out that undocumented migration will likely continue because of persisting insecurity in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—known as the Northern Triangle—whatever policy is made in the United States. That migration of unaccompanied youth, some as young as 5 years of age, has been driven certainly by the region’s poverty but also by increasingly violent and sophisticated street gangs, often colluding with narco-traffickers. As a result, according to CRS, many undocumented immigrants’ children, nieces and nephews now see no alternatives but to make the trek to join their families; a trek that has become only more dangerous. Migrants and refugees navigating through Mexico today often suffer extortion, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, and some are caught up in trafficking.
“People often ask why families would permit children to make the dangerous trek through Mexico,” said O’Keefe. “For us, that simply demonstrates the hopelessness of their situations at home.”
House Republicans criticized the administration's efforts to jump start immigration reform—a legislative package, approved by the Senate, has been stalled for almost two years in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives—as "executive amnesty" and a possibly unconstitutional presidential overreach. U.S. Representative Paul Ryan was confirmed by Republicans on Wednesday as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee overseeing government funding and taxes beginning in January when the new Congress takes office. Ryan told Reuters that Obama's immigration plan was a "partisan bomb" that would hamper any effort to work with Congress on tax reform and other issues.
Asked to comment on the allegation that the president's proposal is little more than a hidden amnesty program for people who have broken U.S. law by entering the country without documentation or overstaying visas, O'Keefe responded, "We are not rewarding people who broke the law, but admitting the truth that we drove people here through our own need for low wage labor, our own trade policies that made it harder for people to live a decent life in their home country, our own support to unjust regimes and destabilizing conflicts." He added, "If a two- to three-year reprieve from deportation is a reward for people who have been here working, raising families and paying taxes for years, what is punishment?"
A CRS statement called for the United States to deepen its investments in the countries of origin for many of the migrant. “The administration’s investment in employment generation, education and the revitalization of rural economies of the Northern Triangle, as announced last week before the Inter-American Development Bank, begins to scratch the surface of the problems in the region,” O’Keefe said. “These efforts must be scaled up significantly to provide the opportunity and security in the home countries of the migrants and refugees who now seek them in the United States.”
A Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) statement called the president’s moves to freeze most deportations “an important step towards protecting immigrants and strengthening families,” adding, “the decision moves our nation closer towards creating a society in which authentic human dignity is recognized, families are strengthened, and all, regardless of creed, race, or background, are welcomed as full members of our community.
In the statement Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, added, “We stand with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in hoping that this action will stabilize the path forward for millions of people seeking to come out of the shadows and become fully participating members of society. We are hopeful that this step will open the door to legislatively-enacted and comprehensive reform that will provide workers with a path to permanent citizenship, prevent families from being split up, and protect vulnerable children coming from violence-stricken homelands.”
“In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus says that when we welcome a stranger in his name, we welcome his presence into our hearts,” Snyder said. “In the faces of these men, women, and children, we are called to see the face of Christ and provide a just and compassionate welcome in a way that respects their inherent dignity as fellow daughters and sons of God.”
The Franciscan Action Network “applauds this first step that the President took, and thanks him for putting the importance of the lives of millions of people over political games.” A FAN statement adds, “We now call on Congress to provide relief for the millions of families who will still be broken apart by deportation and are looking for an earned path to citizenship such as family members not covered under DACA and farm workers who toil in our fields every day.
“As people of faith, we're called to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger. We have a moral obligation to stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers. As Pope Francis stated recently ahead of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: 'Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognized in migrants and refugees, in displaced persons and in exiles, and through them he calls us to share our resources, and occasionally to give up something of our acquired riches.'"