A range of Trump administration shifts on immigration and asylum policy were roundly condemned today by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinal DiNardo, leader of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, deplored “a climate of fear” created by immigration enforcement actions announced by the president and the administration’s new efforts to drastically limit asylum claims at the U.S. southern border.
“Enforcement actions like those anticipated this week by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency separate families, cause the unacceptable suffering of thousands of children and their parents, and create widespread panic in our communities,” the cardinal said in a statement released on July 16. “I condemn such an approach, which has created a climate of fear in our parishes and communities across the country.”
The cardinal reported that he had personally written to President Trump to ask him to reconsider the ICE plan to round up individuals around the country with outstanding deportation orders and any “collateral” undocumented people discovered with them. Just under six million U.S.-born children live in homes where some member of the household, usually one or both parents, is undocumented or facing deporation, according to the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
“It is contrary to American and Christian values to attempt to prevent people from migrating here when they are fleeing to save their lives and to find safety for their families,” Cardinal DiNardo said.
The administration has acknowledged that such enforcement actions are intended to discourage Central Americans from accepting the risk of heading north to apply for asylum. Cardinal DiNardo called the deterrence intent “both misguided and untenable.”
“It is contrary to American and Christian values to attempt to prevent people from migrating here when they are fleeing to save their lives and to find safety for their families,” he said.
A Trump administration rewrite of asylum policy, announced on July 15, now requires that applicants for U.S. asylum must first make asylum appeals in Mexico or in a different Central American state they may pass through heading north. The policy alteration was described by Cardinal DiNardo as a “further unacceptable action to undermine the ability of individuals and families to seek protection in the United States.”
The new rule, as published in the Federal Register, says that “an alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border after failing to apply for protection in a third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which the alien transited en route to the United States is ineligible for asylum.” The rule reverses decades of U.S. policy in the administration’s most forceful attempt yet to slash the number of people seeking asylum in the United States.
The policy shift would cover countless would-be refugees, many of them fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, and would also apply to children who have crossed the border alone. It is certain to face legal challenges. Exceptions to the new prohibition include victims of human trafficking and asylum seekers who applied in a “safe third country” but were denied protection.
Introducing the new rule, Attorney General William P. Barr said it represented a “lawful exercise of authority provided by Congress to restrict eligibility for asylum.”
He added in a statement: “The United States is a generous country but is being completely overwhelmed by the burdens associated with apprehending and processing hundreds of thousands of aliens along the southern border. This Rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States—while ensuring that no one is removed from the United States who is more likely than not to be tortured or persecuted on account of a protected ground.”
The changes to asylum policy “adds further barriers to asylum-seekers’ ability to access life-saving protection, shirks our moral duty and will prevent the United States from taking its usual leading role in the international community as a provider of asylum protection.”
Department of Homeland Security officials say the rule change is necessary to address “a dramatic increase in the number of aliens encountered along or near the southern land border with Mexico” and a corresponding increase “in the number, and percentage, of aliens claiming fear of persecution or torture when apprehended or encountered by DHS.” They point out that only a small minority of these individuals are ultimately granted U.S. asylum, but “the large number of meritless asylum claims places an extraordinary strain on the nation’s immigration system, undermines many of the humanitarian purposes of asylum” and “has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis of human smuggling.”
Despite the attorney general’s confidence in his authority to change asylum policy without congressional consent, Cardinal DiNardo pointed out that the legality of the new rule needs to be scrutinized. He added that the new policy continues the administration’s “enforcement only” approach to the nation’s immigration challenges. The U.S. bishops have long supported comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, addressing root causes of migration and prioritizes family reunification.
The changes to asylum policy, Cardinal DiNardo said, “adds further barriers to asylum-seekers’ ability to access life-saving protection, shirks our moral duty and will prevent the United States from taking its usual leading role in the international community as a provider of asylum protection.”
“All who are at or within our borders should be treated with compassion and dignity,” Cardinal DiNardo concluded. “Beyond that, a just solution to this humanitarian crisis should focus on addressing the root causes that compel families to flee and enacting a humane reform of our immigration system.”
The president’s asylum policy changes were also criticized by a number of immigration and humanitarian advocates, including Christopher Kerr, the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. “Catholics around the world attending Mass [on July 14] heard the 'Parable of the Good Samaritan' and a message of love for one’s neighbor proclaimed in the Gospel,” he said in a statement released on July 15. “Today, our nation awoke to the news of the president of the United States seeking to shut off access to safety and refuge for Central American families facing horrific violence, repression, and poverty in their home countries.
“This is not the act of a Good Samaritan—instead it is an effort that does not honor the inherent dignity of those seeking asylum in our country,” Mr. Kerr said. “Not only would the ruling have a profound impact on Central Americans facing poverty and gang violence, but it would also affect people from many other countries fleeing religious persecution and other forms of abuse. ‘Being compassionate means recognizing the suffering of the other and taking immediate action to soothe, heal and save,’ said Pope Francis in his 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees address, when referring to the actions of the Good Samaritan. As a nation, we should seek to be more like the Samaritan, choosing to be people of compassion.”
In Guatemala another controversial leader was struggling to institute his own controversial changes to immigration law. President Jimmy Morales has been eager to accept a role suggested by Mr. Trump and formally allow his nation to serve as a “safe third country” for regional asylum seekers hoping to eventually resettle in the United States.
That proposal has been challenged by Guatemalan lawmakers and migrant advocates as violating that country’s constitution—much as Mr. Trump’s plan has been criticized by his U.S. opponents. Critics add that Guatemala is hardly a safe option for migrants from other Central American states, nor does it have the structural capacity to care for large numbers of migrants.
In a statement released to the Vatican’s Fides News Agency, the Bishops’ Conference of Guatemala (C.E.G.) criticized the lack of transparency with which the decision was reached and implored the Guatemalan president not to sign an agreement “that would be seriously damaging for the good and sovereignty of the country.”
The bishops’ communiqué, signed by C.E.G.’s president, the Most Rev. Gonzalo de Villa, S.J., and its secretary, the Most Rev. Domingo Buezo, and released on July 13, expressed the “enormous concern in the face of the consequences of this agreement that would further sharpen the difficult situation of migrants in our country [and] people looking at the north for opportunities denied to them here.”
“Government action,” the bishops added, “should focus on [its] responsibility to provide the population with a minimum of opportunities for a dignified life.”
The bishops warned that Guatemala would not be able to absorb migrants from other countries who would be forced to wait in bureaucratic limbo for a response from the United States, or to provide them with security, health care, adequate housing and jobs to sustain themselves.
With reporting from The Associated Press.