Since issuing their 2003 migration pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the U.S. Catholic bishops have pushed for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, and rightly so. Such legislation would include a path to citizenship for most of the undocumented population in the country, as well as improvements to the legal immigration system. The bishops, along with other immigration advocates, came close to winning passage of bills in 2006, 2007 and 2013, but each time Congress failed to get the legislation over the finish line.
But under the Trump administration, Catholics must shift their focus toward opposing mass deportations. Mr. Trump and his high-level staff—including, sadly, John F. Kelly, who was the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security before recently being named White House chief of staff—have taken steps to implement a major deportation campaign targeted at all undocumented immigrants, including the population the U.S. bishops have sought for years to make citizens.
Let us mark the steps. An executive order called “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” signed by President Trump during his first week in office, is written so broadly and gives immigration agents such wide discretion in making arrests that it effectively renders all undocumented immigrants, regardless of family obligations, employment status and community ties, priorities for removal. To begin implementing this policy, the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 asks for 1,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and 500 more Border Patrol agents, plus more than 10,000 more detention beds, not to mention $1.6 billion for a border wall. The administration also will likely expand the use of expedited removal, which allows enforcement personnel to remove undocumented immigrants without judicial review. Last but not least, the travel ban against six countries imposed by the administration limits the number of refugees allowed into the country, leaving tens of thousands of refugees overseas and in danger.
It is clear where this administration is headed on immigration. The goal is not to legalize 11 million undocumented persons but to get rid of them.
It is clear where this administration is headed on immigration. The goal is not to legalize 11 million undocumented persons but to get rid of them. Any immigration legislation that is favorable to this administration and the current Congress would only reinforce this goal, by including several new harsh enforcement programs and by excluding any path to citizenship or legalization program. The most the bishops could hope for would be a watered-down DREAM Act, which may or may not help young undocumented immigrants become citizens.
Moreover, the legal immigration system, which admits nearly one million legal permanent residents a year, giving priority to family reunification, is at risk. President Trump has already called for a “merit-based” immigration system favoring high-skilled and wealthy immigrants over lower-skilled immigrant workers and family members. He also favors legislation that would cut the number of green cards issued per year by 500,000. The result of these “reforms” would be the evisceration of the family-based immigration system.
This is not to say that the U.S. bishops and Catholics across the nation should ignore the need to reform our nation’s immigration laws and to support legislation consistent with the principles laid out in “Strangers No Longer.”The church should always hold up what is right. A new collection of reports released by the Center for Migration Studies analyzes needed reforms to the system in the years ahead. But while reform is still needed, the U.S. Catholic community must respond to the injustices happening in front of our eyes.
The Catholic response
The Trump administration has not hesitated to deport immigrants who have resided here for decades and have longstanding ties to our country, including fathers and mothers of children who were born here and are U.S. citizens. Homeland Security and other enforcement agencies will become more aggressive if Congress gives them the resources and the tools to remove as many persons as possible over the next several years.
The U.S. bishops should continue to issue statements against the administration’s proposed enforcement policies, but more is needed at this pivotal time. Many individual bishops have spoken out and given prophetic witness, but each bishop must have a plan to respond to the deportations of long-term residents happening in his own diocese. Bishops must lead by example and facilitate the involvement of Catholics in supporting vulnerable immigrant families.
Bishops must lead by example and facilitate the involvement of Catholics in supporting vulnerable immigrant families.
Here are five steps bishops and Catholics can take in their dioceses to support immigrants.
Educate Catholics on this important issue, including through parish-based campaigns. Without the support of Catholics in the pews, it will be hard to generate the political power needed to move Congress and the Trump administration toward a more human rights-based, rather than enforcement-based, position on immigration. There needs to be a commitment to get Catholics involved in the process by contacting their representatives and senators. This can be done through events, parish meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The Justice for Immigrants campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should provide materials to parishes for this purpose. In addition, the U.S.C.C.B. should launch a messaging campaign targeted at Catholics who may not agree with them on immigration policy. Such a campaign should address the appropriate role of enforcement in any immigration system and should feature a pastoral statement on the ethics of immigration enforcement
Let the public and immigrant communities know that their dioceses will do all they can, within the law, to protect immigrant families. There are many ways that bishops and the Catholics in their dioceses can show solidarity with immigrants and refugees in their communities. Parishes and individuals can provide material or legal assistance to a recently resettled refugee family or to an immigrant family with a loved one in deportation proceedings. Moreover, a bishop can let it be known that he will not cooperate in any way with roundups or raids of any sort and can let immigration enforcement officials know they would need a warrant to come on any church property. In addition, bishops must be prepared if immigrants arrive at churches asking for “sanctuary” or protection from deportation. The bishop, diocesan staff and parishioners can act as interlocutors with the government to resolve an individual’s case in a peaceful and just manner.
Begin a dialogue with congressional delegations and the federal government on the Catholic position on immigration. It is important for a bishop and his flock to have good relationships with their legislators and with the local ICE office. This should go beyond an occasional meeting, requiring an ongoing dialogue on immigration issues. Legislators and law enforcement agencies must know how important the issue is to the church and must know how many grass-roots calls and letters they receive are connected to the bishop and his diocese. Inviting elected officials to diocesan programs serving immigrants can also be an effective way to convey a pro-immigrant message.
Participate in high-profile events to highlight the problems with the immigration system. On April 1, 2014, the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Migration held a border Mass that remembered the lives of migrants who have died in the American deserts. This Mass received much attention, especially on social media, and was a teaching moment for the bishops and for Catholics. Other such high-profile events should be held by bishops, including visiting detention centers in their dioceses; interceding on behalf of undocumented immigrants who are being deported and who have longstanding ties to the community; spending time with immigrant communities, including agricultural workers and other laborers; and greeting refugees who arrive in the diocese. Parishioners should be invited to participate in these events.
Provide additional support to diocesan immigration lawyers and volunteers to represent immigrants in their legal proceedings. Statistics show that immigrants with legal representation have a much higher chance to win legal status than those who do not, but many immigrants cannot afford such representation. Moreover, according to a C.M.S. analysis, there are a significant number of undocumented immigrants who are eligible for other categories of legal status, including permanent residence, but are unable to pursue them without the help of an attorney. Starting a fund to support legal representation for immigrants is one avenue; reaching out to local law firms for pro bono attorneys is another.
Who is my neighbor? He or she is the parent of a child born in the United States (and thus a citizen), who is nevertheless picked up for a broken tail light and placed in deportation proceedings; the young immigrant who may not have qualified or has lost eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program; the Central American family facing deportation because they do not have an asylum lawyer; or the undocumented Iraqi interpreter who helped our forces in Iraq. These are all real cases of persons facing deportation. These are our neighbors, a message each bishop should be sending to his flock, regardless of the pushback by those who might disagree.
Catholics should stand with them individually and collectively—and very publicly. They should intercede with the government on their behalf. They should recruit lawyers to represent them. They should make it as difficult for the government to deport them as legally possible. In this environment, success should be measured one case, and one life, at a time.
And what if people, including Catholics, disagree? What if they threaten to take away financial support from a diocese because of a bishop’s actions in support of undocumented immigrants? So be it. By standing strong, the bishops and Catholics who join their efforts are giving witness to the church’s teaching—to the teaching of Christ—in a powerful way. They are not only honoring Catholic teaching but also exercising their rights as U.S. citizens: to help, within the law, their vulnerable neighbors and their families, many of whom worship in Mass each Sunday.
We are entering a dangerous time in the history of our immigrant nation. The stakes for our immigrant brothers and sisters, and their children, are high. History will judge whether Catholics stood up and protected their neighbors during this dark period. It is time to walk the walk.