To end the U.S.-Mexico border crisis, the United States must address the flow of illegal drugs and arms and the harmful economic policies forcing children and families to leave Central America for the U.S., said the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.
Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, made the comments in a July 24 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following a trip he and other bishops and church leaders made to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
In a separate statement, Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo, who heads the U.S. bishops' migration committee, urged President Barack Obama and the presidents of the three Central American countries that Bishop Pates visited to protect and care for children and families fleeing violence in the region.
Bishop Elizondo's letter was issued a day before a July 25 meeting in Washington of Obama and Presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras.
"The leaders should focus upon the protection of these children and families, as they are charged with as the heads of their nations," the bishop said. "Instead of cooperating on intercepting them and sending them back to dangerous situations, they should work together to protect them from those dangers, including providing them asylum in neighboring countries and in the United States."
The Pew Research Center estimates that more than 57,500 unaccompanied children and youths crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in the nine months between Oct. 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, an increase from 38,700 youths in fiscal year 2013. Its July 22 report shows that children 12 and older are the fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
National Catholic leaders have called for a compassionate response to the youths who have crossed the border, many of whom are fleeing drug-related violence.
In his letter to Kerry, Bishop Pates said the U.S. cannot separate the humanitarian crisis of many thousands of unaccompanied minors journeying to the U.S. border from several root causes in Latin America, many of which he said are generated by U.S. policies.
"The crisis on our borders will not be minimally resolved until drugs and arms flows, harmful trade provisions, and other critical economic policies that contribute to violence are addressed and rectified," Bishop Pates wrote.
Church leaders and U.S. diplomats in each country his delegation visited, he said, agreed that long-term resolutions would only come from investment in education and jobs.
Bishop Pates said he frequently heard that the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, "and similar trade policies, had devastated small agricultural producers and businesses in the region, while depressing labor conditions and wages."
With regard to the drugs and violence that often drive people to leave their home countries, Bishop Pates said the U.S. must recognize its "own complicity in this crisis, and support more effective programs that reduce drug usage here at home."
"Similarly, the regulation of gun exports, coupled with criminal justice reforms that foster rehabilitation rather than retribution," he said, "need to be implemented by our states and our federal government."
He pointed to another factor he said is making life intolerable for many in Central America -- destructive environmental impact and public health consequences of U.S. and Canadian mining companies in Latin America.
Bishop Pates said the U.S. and Canadian governments need to hold companies with operations in the region to the same standards of protecting human life and the environment as they require in their own countries.
In his statement, Bishop Elizondo echoed Bishop Pates' remarks about the need for a strategy to address "over the long term ... the violence and lack of opportunity in the countries of Central America. Specific attention should be paid to helping at-risk youth remain safe and access opportunity at home."
Bishop Elizondo also reaffirmed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposition to proposals to amend current law to speed the deportations of the children without giving them the benefit of an immigration hearing.
Congress was scheduled to consider supplemental appropriations legislation the last week of July to fund the care of children and families arriving at the border.
"We oppose linking changes to the law -- changes which could send children back to harm -- to the funding bill, which is needed to humanely respond to this situation," Bishop Elizondo said. "Families, as well, should receive a fair hearing of their asylum claims."
In the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, in an open letter to the community at large, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham said the diocese "stands at the ready" to help temporarily house migrant children from Central America who are awaiting deportation hearings.
He said he is aware that the issue has been the subject of intense debate, and will continue to be in the future, but in the interim he said the church has an obligation to help.
"In the midst of this debate that will continue over the course of months, one fact remains," Bishop Cunningham wrote. "We must care for the children. Whether we agree with the method or the circumstance, the fact is that there are 52,000-plus children who are in our country who are in need right now."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human services is considering former convents and the former Maria Regina College owned by the Sisters of St. Francis on Syracuse's North Side as a potential site for temporary housing.
The Maryland Catholic Conference said in a July 23 statement: "As our national and local governments continue to grapple with this difficult situation, we are hopeful that partisan differences will not stand in the way of finding a just and humane response to this urgent need."
"We pray that our country will be able to look back proudly at how we answered this call, and ask God to touch the hearts and minds of the people of Maryland and throughout America with compassion and generosity," it said. "Most importantly, we entrust these children to God's providence, for we know 'You do see, for you behold misery and sorrow, taking them in your hands. On you the unfortunate man depends; of the fatherless you are the helper' (Psalm 10)."
Arkansas Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock in a July 25 statement said that until the federal government will allow local families to take in unaccompanied minors and mothers coming across the border, Catholics could still help in various ways.
First he said people of faith can "examine our own hearts: How do we see the people who are like refugees at our border? Do we see them as objects who threaten our lifestyle or can we see them as children without any hope, as parents who just want the best for their families, as people who are so desperate for a safe place to live that they risk walking a thousand miles just to find it. What does love demand of us?"
He urged Catholics to keep them in their prayers, be the "voice of the voiceless," and provide donations of needed money and supplies.
"How hard it must be for parents to reach," Bishop Taylor continued, "the point of realizing that the only chance their children have for escaping violence and possible death is to put money in their hands and send them north, even at the cost of possibly never seeing them again but also with the hope that our hearts might be moved to help their children have a chance for a better life. Hence this is a human crisis for us as well - 'crisis' in the sense of a time of decision in which we reveal who we really are before God."
Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio said July 21 that the Catholic Church would only support amendments to the 2008 anti-trafficking law at the center of the crisis "that would truly ensure due process, justice, and humane treatment of these children. Merely sending them back to the violent context from which they have fled is a shameful action."
"These immigrants are people like ourselves, not mere problems or statistics or irritants. They are our sisters and brothers. Let us embrace them with traditional American compassion," he said.