Catholic leaders denounce Sessions’s asylum decision: ‘We have truly lost our moral compass.’

In this April 21, 2017 file photo, with razor wire across the top of the secondary border fence behind him, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions attends a news conference at the U.S.-Mexico border next to the Brown Field Border Patrol Station in San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, File)

A decision to deny appeals for asylum in the United States based on claims of domestic abuse or gang violence has been deplored by Catholic leaders from coast to coast. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy called a ruling by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reject such claims “a denial of our heritage.”

“For the whole of our history, the United States has been a refuge for people seeking protection from oppression,” he said. “If we are going to begin now to categorize domestic violence and rape as other than an oppression of people’s human dignity, then we have truly lost our moral compass as a country.”


He added, “This is simply the end of the United States being the haven to refugees in the world, the end of our great national tradition.”

In a ruling that could affect thousands of Central Americans who have made a perilous journey north in search of safety in the United States, the attorney general said on June 11 that immigration judges generally cannot consider domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy called a ruling by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reject such claims “a denial of our heritage.”

“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Tex., and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement released on June 13. “The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection,” he said.

“These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country,” he said. “This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors.” The cardinal urged U.S. courts and policymakers “to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.”

In New York, Donald M. Kerwin Jr., director of the Center for Migration Studies, said the decision was just another in a series of steps that the Trump administration has taken to limit protection in the United States for people fleeing violence, conflict or political oppression, “starting with cuts in the refugee resettlement program, the evisceration of temporary protected status, [and] the denial of access to the asylum system at the U.S./Mexico border,” among other policy and bureaucratic moves aimed at halting the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to the United States. He said the attorney general had made the unprecedented decision to refer a case “to himself” with the goal of trying to eliminate asylum claims by “creating a standard that cannot be met.”

“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.

In a 31-page decision, the attorney general said, “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes—such as domestic violence or gang violence—or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

In a widely anticipated move, Mr. Sessions overruled a Board of Immigration Appeals decision in 2016 that gave asylum status to a woman from El Salvador who had fled her husband. Mr. Sessions had personally reopened the case for his review in March as the Trump administration stepped up criticism of asylum practices.

Mr. Sessions focused on one of five categories accepted to qualify for asylum—persecution for membership in a social group—calling it “inherently ambiguous.” The other criteria are race, religion, nationality and political affiliation.

Domestic violence is a “particularly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States,” Mr. Sessions wrote, but he said its prevalence in El Salvador does not mean that its government is less willing or able to protect victims than the United States is.

Domestic violence is a “particularly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States,” Mr. Sessions wrote.

Mr. Kerwin does not share that judgment. He said that among many asylum seekers reaching the U.S. border, “extreme levels of violence have been experienced because a government is unable or unwilling to stop it or, as in some cases, is complicit in it.”

“To declare that asylum can no longer be granted to victims of gang violence or spouse abuse not only flies in the face of the American tradition of protecting the most vulnerable immigrants, it sets a dangerous precedent for other victims of violence, including those who are targeted for their religious beliefs,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (Clinic), in a statement released on June 11. According to Clinic, asylum law has long recognized that persecution can occur at the hands of entities that a national government is “unable or unwilling to control,” including terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers.

Many of the nation’s Jesuit institutions also expressed strong opposition to the attorney general’s decision. “As Jesuit organizations and affiliated law professors and advocates serving refugees and asylum seekers, we are appalled at this ill-conceived decision,” read a statement released on June 13 by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology, the Kino Border Initiative and 12 U.S.-based Jesuit law schools.

“It is contrary to both U.S. and Catholic values which protect the most vulnerable, including victims of violence and persecution,” the statement continued. “In the midst of the largest global forced migration crisis in recorded history, with over 65 million people displaced from their homes, we must do more, not less, to address the needs of individuals, families and communities in search of safety and security.”

According to these Jesuit groups, the protection of the individual is at the heart of U.S. asylum and immigration law “and should include those experiencing domestic and gang violence.” They added, “We must not turn our backs on those who are most in need.”

“We must do more, not less, to address the needs of those in search of safety and security.”

“This is a sad day,” Ms. Atkinson said. “With this decision the Trump administration continues to keep out of this country those who need the promise and protections of the United States the most, saying that such refugees should use ‘legal channels’ to seek entry to the United States at the same time it systematically moves to close those channels.”

She added that Clinic staff had “personally witnessed what happens when beleaguered, fearful people try to use ‘legal channels’ by presenting themselves at ports of entry following a grueling journey.” Hundreds have waited for days at ports of entry along the Mexican border, seeking admission to apply for asylum, she said.

That bureaucratic bog at the border serves a purpose of the Trump administration, Mr. Kerwin suggested. He has been surprised to hear administration officials “with a straight face” try to make the case that Mexico, a nation struggling with deep structural corruption and rampant drug and political violence, should be considered a “safe, third-party state,” obviating a U.S. obligation under international law to accept asylum seekers as they reach the border.

Mr. Kerwin dismissed the policy shift as “ridiculous, mean-spirited and meretricious.”

The United States, he suggested, “is beginning to look a lot like one of these Eastern European ethno-nationalist countries” where near-outright racism has begun to pass for migration policy.

“Families are the foundational element of our society, and they must be able to stay together.”

“We are in a moral realm now that is really quite disturbing, and we think that what they are doing is evil,” he said. (Mr. Kerwin struggled over the word evil before deciding it was the only appropriate descriptor.)

““There is something much deeper going on here and more troubling,” he said. “People are fleeing for their lives with their children, and they are being denied protection.... I think what’s at the heart of it is a different view of the country, a different vision than the one a lot of us share about this democracy and a vision that I hope the majority of the country would reject.”

In San Diego, Bishop McElroy has decided that advocacy and education campaigns alone are no longer a sufficient response to the immigration crisis as the Trump administration continues more aggressive enforcement policies against undocumented people that include separating children from their parents.

“We have to take some steps to provide assistance to keep families together,” he said, “and for that reason we’ve established a program through our Catholic Charities to provide housing and assistance for those asylum seekers who meet the first threshold [in the asylum process] and who are allowed into the country.”

In his statement on June 13 on behalf of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal DiNardo took the opportunity to join with Bishop Joe Vásquez, chairman of U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Migration, in condemning “the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the administration’s zero tolerance policy.”

“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma,” he said. “Families are the foundational element of our society, and they must be able to stay together.” The cardinal acknowledged that “protecting our borders is important,” but, he said, “we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."

It is not clear if the attorney general’s reversal of asylum policy will withstand court challenges, according to Mr. Kerwin, but in the meantime, a message has been sent to families from Mexico and Central America who are considering fleeing the chaos and disorder of their home states. Border arrests topped 50,000 for a third straight month in May and lines of asylum seekers have grown at U.S. crossings with Mexico.

How many will refrain from making the difficult journey north will depend on how desperate their current circumstances are, Mr. Kerwin said, pointing out that so far migrants are still coming to the border despite the new aggressiveness of border and immigration enforcement.

Updated on June 13, 5:13 p.m. ET to include a statement from Jesuit institutions.

J Cosgrove
5 days 5 hours ago

Are the Catholic leaders/bishops saying that every other country in the world is inferior/undesirable and not to be considered acceptable for asylum? Reminds me of Trump's comments about some other countries.

Maybe the bishops of all the Latin American countries should meet and discuss how their countries should be the refuge for these people seeking asylum.

Franklin Uroda
4 days 22 hours ago

Your last remark is so right on the money. Why don't those bishops do that? Oh yeah, the money. And yes, the bishops of the world seem to be reinforcing the POTUS' remarks about those other countries. Why not redirect the southern border folks who want in to our country to Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world?

J Cosgrove
3 days 8 hours ago

It is interesting that there are laws governing asylum, mentioned briefly in article, and no one wants to discuss them. Sessions is the chief law enforcer. The effort should be to change the laws if found lacking and not denigrate someone.

Sandi Sinor
5 days 3 hours ago

‘We have truly lost our moral compass.’

Sadly, that was clear on Nov 9, 2016. Those who said, "Oh, he's just talking. He'll be fine after he's in office" were wrong. They chose not to see what was apparent every time Trump opened his mouth. That he had no moral compass was clear long before Nov 8, 2016, It was clear that he believed his own hate-filled campaign rhetoric. It has not been "fine". It's been even worse than imagined. And it just gets worse and worse.

Saddest of all - the many self-proclaimed "christians" who support his agenda. His policies are the anti-thesis of what Jesus taught. They are the anti-thesis of real christianity.

Dolores Pap
4 days 22 hours ago

I don't recognize this country anymore- it's the antithesis of everything I once revered as being moral, good, kind, generous and decent.

James Haraldson
4 days 1 hour ago

Obviously you regard killing babies as moral, good, kind, generous, and decent and would therefore want to be rid of the most personally generous and pro-life head of state in human history and seek a return to a mass murdering head of state.

Dolores Pap
3 days 19 hours ago

Every woman must decide for herself under what circumstances she would be unwilling to continue a pregnancy- and the state does not have the right to determine that for her, nor does it have the right to force women to be incubators... I believe that abortions should be rare, safe and legal.

James Haraldson
3 days 18 hours ago

Wrong. No woman has a right to decide to execute an innocent life, and the state does not determine what is innate to a divinely endowed human condition. God determines what is innate to the human condition. When God creates a life, it is a sacred obligation that the mother be protected from monstrously evil minds and souls such as yours that would influence her to refuse to accept her innate and natural disposition to accept God's creation.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 days 10 hours ago

Mr. Haraldson, per your comment, pat yourself on the back. The abortion tole since 1973 perhaps will stop at sixty million. I’m curious whether pro-lifers are one and done. The article suggests we face a new sixty million life opportunity.

Nora Bolcon
4 days 7 hours ago

Absolutely - It is time we stopped pretending. This includes our church leaders too.

Steve Magnotta
5 days 2 hours ago

Amen. Some of us surely are struggling with a moral compass.
I scratch my head in wonderment often these days. How can so many profess Christianity so vehemently, while practicing Christianity seemingly not at all?
Trying, humbly, to keep the faith, and to make sure I know where my 'true north' is, and that I'm doing my best to keep myself oriented.
God help America. God bless America.

Will Niermeyer
5 days ago

Tell them to go someplace else. Or better yet stay in there own Country and correct the problems. We have enough of these people in the USA. End it now. Will the Catholic Church house and feed them all. I doubt it.

Robin Smith
4 days 23 hours ago

That's it, Willie, show your xenophobic racism loud & clear for all to see. Don't worry about what the Church will or won't do, you aren't a True Catholic, by your own words, anyway.

yong chin denn
4 days 12 hours ago

What is the difference between 'human and animals'? 'Animals' do not have compassion, but hopefully humans have compassion for other peoples and other living being. Will, are you sure you are a 'human''? Do not ask what others(Catholic Church) will/will not do! Always ask what you will/will not do!

Beside, 'Catholic Church is busy raping children and hiding it" We are living a time of hell as is without your help!

Robert Lewis
3 days 8 hours ago

I notice that you have a German surname. Do you happen to know what the WASPs thought of German immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Do you happen to know what those same WASPs thought of the Irish immigrants they drummed into the War Between the States, as they were piling off the boats in New York City harbor? Do you know why the San Patricios "deserted" and fought for the Mexican side in the war of 1846-48? Do you happen to know what the WASP Army high command did to those men after they were captured--against the protests of both the Mexican and the British governments, who claimed them as citizens of the British Empire (because of their Irish nationality)? The last people in the United States who should be persecuting immigrants, "legal" or otherwise, are Roman Catholics!

Robin Smith
4 days 23 hours ago

Sessions is just doing what Sessions does, hates foreigners, POC & even more, women. Put those together & this is what we have. Until Mueller finds him complicit too.

Sandi Sinor
3 days 7 hours ago

Sessions must hate little children too. The children - toddlers and even some infants - being taken from their parents, who entered the country legally to apply for asylum - which is their right - are the latest victims of the Trump administration's ever worsening bigotry and hate. Sessions has used a scripture quote about obeying the law to justify what he is doing. It is the same quote that was used by slave-owners to justify slave ownership.

Tom Schneck
4 days 23 hours ago

What is needed is Congressional action for immigration law and policy that (1) families are not to be separated when asylum is requested; (2) fear of persecution due to domestic violence or gang terrorism that cannot be corrected by local authorities of the home country establish a qualification for asylum; (3) seeking asylum is a right under immigration law and prospective seekers of asylum are not to be denied the right to petition for asylum by "metering" or delaying seeking of asylum.
Every Catholic community should mobilize for advocacy for legislation that would prevent the unconscionable administration of immigration policy that AG Sessions under President Trump is carrying out. A new Congress is coming soon that will consider such legislation if we mobilize now.

Phillip Stone
4 days 22 hours ago

The human condition is the same everywhere and the presence of cruelty, indifference, violence and exploitation can be taken for granted. No country is immune and in general whatever mode of governance and whatever pattern of culture prevails it is the product of sin and virtue in the living inhabitants and from their ancestors.

From Australia I get the impression that there is a myth of sanctuary in a promised land at the root of a large number of inhabitants who are descendants of migrants arriving in the era since Christianity which is a source of pride and the ground of virtue signalling as being the greatest nation on earth, ever.
Underlying is the presumption that persecution of persons for their beliefs either political or religious was the virtuous ground for granting of that sanctuary, not the ordinary sufferings due to the human condition.
There is no Old or New Testament commandment, give your homeland to anyone who demands it without let or hindrance.
Ask the people who descended from the first wave of migrants who inhabited the entirety of both continents from Asia and divided the territory into different civilisations and territories, are they happy about the influx of hoards of Europeans and the subsequent vast loss of life and dispossession?

If your rulers allow asylum to persons with legitimate claims of political and religious persecution, that is likely reflecting the will of the people, granting entry to anybody else remains discretionary and will forever be controversial. The issue belongs to Caesar, it seems to me.

In Australia, being an island continent, we just stopped the boats.
We discerned that many attempting to come were Islamic invaders, rightly repelled and others were queue jumping or cheating really needy people of their chance for our compassionate sanctuary.

We still take a large number of refugees and do it in an orderly fashion from amongst the most needy.

J Cosgrove
4 days 4 hours ago

There is a hidden agenda in the disputes over how immigration is handled in the US. It is more about eliminating the United States that used to exist and eventually making whatever political entity remains subject to a world government. That is what open borders is about and decrying how individual immigrants are treated is a means to that end. That is why you will not see any avowed immigration policy in the articles in America, the magazine. It is all emotional without long term rationale.

Sandi Sinor
3 days 7 hours ago

Rational people are not prone to paranoia and right-wing conspiracy theories.

Rational people do not fear others simply because their skin is not the same color as their own.

Christians welcome the stranger. It's one of Jesus' "commands". It's one of God's commands. It's a commandment found in the Judeo-Christian tradition for thousands of years.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matthew 22:37

Matthew 25: 31-40. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5

33When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. 34You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.…Leviticus 19:33

ALL white Americans were once strangers in this land.

Franklin Uroda
4 days 22 hours ago

When folks in other countries want to come to the USA, the natural question is "What must I do to get in?" If they're told "Just go there, everything will be alright," they are being done an immoral injustice.

Nora Bolcon
4 days 8 hours ago

Did we forget that it was Catholics - esp. conservative and sexist ones that voted Mr. Trump in as President.

He didn't hide his agenda on anything but all Catholics cared about was manipulating the supreme court pick. All we cared about and all we were instructed to care about was taking choices away from women and putting them in the hands of government.

Sexism creates poverty, violence, terrorism, etc. and yet we still promote our membership vote according to the old sexist way and we still treat women like slaves in our own church by refusing them vote, voice and justice of same treatment. So sexist people voted a sexist slug into office. I have been disgusted with our leaders support of these kinds of politicians for decades yet they now want us to act surprised that their guy is a bad guy who hires other bad guys to do horrible things. Sorry but this church leadership needed to care about how their votes would effect America's treatment of others before they put him in office. I blame our church for this completely predictable horror show as much as I blame Trump and Sessions.

Colin Donovan
4 days 4 hours ago

This seems a one-note story. Yes, there should be an asylum possibility for eligible persecuted persons, whether political, criminal and in some cases personal. But if the hierarchy wants to utilize canonical "medicinal" sanctions to bring about pro-life policies, there are 80+ Catholic Democrats in Congress who have gone 45 years without "medical" treatment.

Perhaps, as well, the Bishops should get with their brother bishops in Central America to sanction politicians and police authorities to correct the corruption and other endemic issues that drive their citizens north. Otherwise, nothing will really change, not the spousal abuse, not the rapes and sex slavery along the route, and the real injustices that migrants and asylum seekers experience.

Randal Agostini
4 days 2 hours ago

It is disingenuous to use every excuse to bash the Trump Administration. Where can it be shown that the Catholic Church uses the same level of compassion for American citizens who are the victims of family abuse and gang violence. Why this hypocrisy?
What is preventing Mr. Clarke from writing an article about the degree our church charities are subsidized by American taxpayers? Recall what Jesus had to say about a house divided? Unless we begin to have an honest conversation and stop all this stone throwing - there will not be any glass house left.

James Haraldson
4 days 1 hour ago

What would a radical left-wing wholly secularized administrative body like America’s “Catholic” bishops, who despite inheriting God’s gift of a complete understanding of the corrupt side of human nature for the purposes of leading humanity to salvation, yet had to ask atheistic psychiatrists to explain to them whether or not raping a child was a wrong kind of thing to do, and never once mentioned the word sin during discussions of that whole moral crisis, know about what constitutes a “moral compass?” What would a collective body that remained deadly silent every time a mass murderer like Barak Obama tied foreign aid to legalizing abortion in foreign lands know about having a “moral compass?”

Lisa Weber
3 days 17 hours ago

The fact that Donald Trump has no moral compass was abundantly clear during the entire campaign for the presidency. He proclaimed himself "pro-life" by promising to nominate "conservative" judges. One-issue voters ignored all of the evil he promoted in the hope of banning legal abortion. Some Catholic bishops endorsed Trump's dishonesty. Now we are stuck with the horrors of having a corrupt and crazy president who is doing his best to destroy this nation from within and to ruin its reputation in the world. Catholic leaders are complicit in the evils of the Trump administration for supporting him during the election.

James Haraldson
3 days 7 hours ago

What a morally corrupt and crazy set of comments. Your indulgence of secular atheism might choose to believe that there is such a thing as a “single issue” in the moral universe, but the mind of God, the singular source of truth, morality, and authentic rights, is a coherent whole. You can not be wrong about abortion and right about anything else, which is precisely why pro-aborts like you care about evil things, like the good opinion of morally depraved governments around the world. Thankfully, America finally has a sane enough president to not care about the favorable opinion of those slavishly devoted to evil. Unfortunately, not enough Catholic leaders supported Trump, and the American restoration, the presidential candidate with a deeper moral sense and greater capacity to learn that the fascistic, amoral, leftist, mass-murdering, anti-Christian, degenerate he opposed.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

America Media was recognized by the C.P.A. for “setting an incredibly high bar for intellectualism and spirituality.”
America StaffJune 18, 2018
Choosing death is choosing death, and that choice always comes from within a dark hole.
Simcha FisherJune 18, 2018
Typical standards, norms and laws in regard to communications are first eliminated, the pope said in his homily June 18 during morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae.
Mystical experiences are lot more common than you might think.
James Martin, S.J.June 18, 2018