Can the church do more to defend undocumented people?
As the Trump administration threatened to round up undocumented immigrants around the country in mid-July, Guadalupe Pacheco (not her real name) of Los Angeles tried to keep focused on anything else. “Of course it was in the back of my mind because I am an undocumented woman. But it was a moment of feeling that I have to choose. I could choose to stay home and watch the news or just enjoy my life, go to Mass.”
But what she found at church disappointed her. “I was hopeful they would include people seeking asylum in the intercessions. And it was not there.”
Across the nation, bishops and other church leaders have spoken out against Trump administration asylum, detention and immigration policies. Many dioceses have mobilized to provide services for those under threat, from running seminars on how to respond to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement action to offering emergency shelter for asylum applicants. But only a few church leaders have gone beyond statements to confront the administration’s dehumanizing treatment of immigrants.
Some Catholics argue the overall church response has been too muted, given the gravity of the crisis. Bryan Pham, S.J., is a professor of law and canon law at Gonzaga University in Spokane and previously worked as an immigration attorney at the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic in Los Angeles. At Catholic colleges and universities, “you have students take on the issue,” he said, “but the institutions as a whole? I don’t hear it.”
“Parishes and institutions that are directly working with immigrants [speak out]; this affects them. But in other parishes, you don’t hear anything.”
Isaac Cuevas, director of the office of Immigration Affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has certainly heard these complaints. “We’re a very diverse city. What a priest in Redondo Beach is going to say is very different than a priest in East L.A. or Huntington Beach,” he said. “I would hope that every priest understands how important an issue this is, the impact of this for people’s sense of well-being and how frightened people were” in mid-July.
“Parishes and institutions that are directly working with immigrants [speak out]; this affects them. But in other parishes, you don’t hear anything.”
He noted that the archdiocese sent a letter to all its clergy before the round-up of undocumented people was threatened to begin on July 16, helping them “to understand their responsibility as pastoral leaders” in the light of the president’s tweeted threats to the community.
“Immigration is an important topic for [Los Angeles] Archbishop José Gomez,” Father Pham agreed, “you hear him talking about it.”
At Mass on July 20, in fact, the archbishop weighed in again on the issue during the homily. He explained later at a press conference for local media: “Beyond law, beyond politics, we have a duty to welcome the stranger, to open our hearts and our hands to attend to their human needs—their fears and their hunger. We need to treat them with the dignity that they have as children of God, regardless of their status.” But could this archdiocese, home to millions of immigrant Catholics do more?
Father Pham pointed out that when legislators in the state of California threatened in June to require priests to divulge information received during confession, “the archbishop wrote a letter to parishes which was read at Mass, asking people to contact their local politicians to oppose this bill, and he was very successful.” The bill was killed in the state legislature before it came to a vote.
“But when it comes to immigration,” Father Pham said, “you don’t hear the same kind of passion. You don’t have letters written to the parishes pushing them to communicate with their politicians…. I definitely think the church can be much more vocal.”
“It’s hard for people to understand the amount of work we have going on behind the scenes,” Mr. Cuevas countered. “As a church we don’t do a great job of promoting it. I know the archbishop uses his platform in strategic ways that maybe aren’t so overt.”
Lesson from the past: Speak the faith, speak it often
In his work as a U. S. historian, Sean Dempsey, S.J., focuses on the ways religious organizations serve as societal brokers of human rights. The situation Americans find themselves in today, he said, bears strong similarities to the United States in the recent past. “It’s not an exact parallel, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, you also have a global refugee crisis.”
“Change only happens when there’s both grassroots activism and pressure put on elites until they side with you.”
Southeast Asian immigrants of the period were often met with openness. “Because many of those refugees had supported the United States’ cause [in Vietnam and Southeast Asia],” he said, “American administrations tended to be more receptive to them.”
But Central American refugees, fleeing nations whose governments were supported by the Reagan administration, faced obstacles to acceptance similar to those experienced by contemporary migrants, many of whom are migrating from the same countries. “The Reagan administration said, ‘We support your government, therefore we don’t accept that your country is an unsafe place,’” said Father Dempsey. “‘Therefore we’re not going to give you the status of asylum seekers. We’re going to say you’re coming for economic reasons and therefore we consider you illegal.’”
In the 1980s, religious organizations in Los Angeles responded in force to the refugee crisis as Central Americans fled death squads, poverty and civil war. “You had lots of actions at the federal building downtown, people physically blocking the trucks from transporting refugees for deportation, the boycotting of airlines that were taking them back,” Father Dempsey said.
That grassroots action was accompanied by a concerted effort to make a moral argument on the national front for the acceptance of Central Americans as refugees. “At an intellectual level the church was arguing that it doesn’t matter if certain people didn’t qualify as asylum seekers, that they were human beings fleeing war and [therefore] we were morally obligated to help them.
“They were not radical in their thought,” Father Dempsey said. “They weren’t advocating a violation of the law, but that the law should conform to universal principles. If federal law does not recognize people’s rights, that law is wrong. It’s pretty classic Catholic thought.”
At the heart of the Catholic action then were the women’s religious orders. “Oftentimes it was the women religious that helped organize these interfaith protest actions,” he said. “It was they who were working directly with refugees, shelters and parishes in various neighborhoods, who were building these networks both in the city and across into Central America.”
Today many of the organizations that began in the 1980s, “groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, continue to do amazing work,” he added. But overall he finds church efforts “look anemic compared to what they were.”
What may be lacking, according to Father Dempsey, is a persistent, forthright moral voice that typified the response in the 1980s. “Change only happens when there’s both grassroots activism and pressure put on elites until they side with you,” Father Dempsey said. “We have to keep articulating loudly and strongly that what’s happening right now is immoral. All of our social teaching backs that up, and most of [the migrants] are also Catholic. It should be a no-brainer for us.”
“This historical moment we’re living in calls for a more visible, public, dramatic enactment of what our faith is. Our faith is essentially performative. It’s meant to be put into action. It’s something to be incarnated. ”
Bill Canny, executive director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that bishops have been confronting the crisis on many fronts. He noted public actions along the border—Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Tex., for example, personally walked a family of asylum applicants into the United States—or gestures like Miami Bishop Thomas Wenski’s decision to send priests to detention centers to say Mass. Other bishops have supported their local Catholic Charities services to migrant people or delivered letters to the faithful and their representatives in Congress about the issue. “Both as a collective and as a committee on migration,” Mr. Canny said, “the bishops have been very clear that the moral line has been consistently crossed by this administration.”
Their stance on the issue has been complicated by divisions among the faithful on immigration. “We know from the polls that about half of Catholics would be in favor of Trump’s immigration policies,” he said. “Bishops are expected to be pastors of their entire flock. Bishop [Joe Vásquez, head of the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Migration and Refugee Services] gets frequent letters condemning his words of encouragement to immigrants.… We need to help them understand the church’s position and convince them to get behind the movement to counter a restrictionist immigrant attitude of this administration.”
Praying with our feet
Melissa Cedillo is a fellow at Faith in Public Life, a national network of clergy and faith leaders who advocate for social justice and the common good. She believes Catholic bishops could have a significant impact on the current dialogue around immigration if they wedded their words to more strategic action. “It’s helpful when the bishops issue statements, like welcoming immigrants,” she acknowledged. “But when you’re thinking about media and what gets attention, when the bishops do something—walking a family across the border, giving communion through the wall—that gets attention.”
It also offers a clear expression of Catholic beliefs, she said. “When we had 30 sisters and Tom Reese getting arrested,” she said, referring to a demonstration at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington in February 2018, “[it’s clear] we’re not messing around: This is what we want, this is what we stand for. It’s a beautiful intersection of faith in action; we are praying with our feet and our bodies.”
A similar demonstration with that intent was held on July 18 in Washington during a “Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children.” The event drew protestors from different Catholic advocacy, service and education ministries from around the country and included an action in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda that led to the arrest of 65 demonstrators.
Gail Gresser is the director of campus ministry at Mount St. Mary’s University, in Los Angeles. “The majority of our students are from immigrant families,” she said. “Just about everybody you talk to knows someone who doesn’t have documents.”
She, too, praises the bishops for the formal statements they have made on immigration. “But I wish the bishops as a whole would do something more dramatic, more visible,” she said. “All the bishops at one of the detention centers…. That would convey a message.”
“You look at Pope Francis offering these visceral images. He does not say, ‘Visit the imprisoned,’ he goes there himself and washes their feet. He goes to where the refugee crisis is and tells them, ‘God loves you.’”
Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Tex., recalled “near-universal disappointment with the statement from...the U.S.C.C.B. the first time mass deportations were threatened.”
“I don’t know that I would be so critical,” Mr. Corbett said. “On the issue of immigration, the church is doing a lot. It’s advocating on Capitol Hill. It’s supporting development in regions like Central America.
“But this historical moment we’re living in calls for a more visible, public, dramatic enactment of what our faith is. Our faith is essentially performative. It’s meant to be put into action. It’s something to be incarnated. ”
“I think that’s what’s missing,” Mr. Corbett said, “that visible demonstration of solidarity. I think people are looking for that.”
“You look at Pope Francis offering these visceral images,” Ms. Cedillo said. “He does not say, ‘Visit the imprisoned,’ he goes there himself and washes their feet. He goes to where the refugee crisis is and tells them, ‘God loves you.’ He doesn’t get lost in complex theologies of what do we do, what is the answer. He says, ‘I’ll just show you.’”
“Is what we’re doing enough?” Mr. Canny asked. “That’s a question that we should consistently reflect on, there’s no doubt about it. I ask myself that. I’m a family man, I have kids, but nonetheless, should I be out here, getting arrested?
“Sometimes when there’s a raid people won’t go to church because their church hasn’t spoken about it. They’re not sure where their church stands.”
“I’m not going to take issue with those who would want the bishops to do more,” he said. “But I think we have to be very careful as lay faithful that we’re asking ourselves the same questions. These are fair questions for all of us.”
Catholics working with undocumented people suggest there are many ways to marry words and deeds in this moment. Louise Martinez (not her real name) runs one of the few Catholic institutions in Los Angeles that offers sanctuary to undocumented people.
Her shelter has chosen to keep its status quiet; because it is one of the only places the undocumented can go, the fear of government action against the shelter or people staying there is high. But “if the archdiocese were to declare itself a sanctuary, [including] all its churches,” she suggested, things could be different for her program. “Nobody would be able to target a specific location.”
Ms. Cedillo agreed: “When there is a raid announced on a Sunday, every church should be lining up to say, ‘If you wish, we’re open to you.’”
Guadalupe Pacheco suggests archdiocesan fundraising as another means of gathering attention and demonstrating intent. “The church in Los Angeles has a great immigration center, the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project. But it’s underfunded,” she said.
Even just showing up at interfaith events—or not—can speak volumes, said Ms. Cedillo. “In Washington, D.C., any time there’s an immigration vigil or protest, I don’t have to worry about Jewish colleagues showing up,” she said. “If I want a rabbi to speak, it’s not hard to track one down.” But “a lot of priests say, ‘I would, but I probably shouldn’t.’”
“If we think of sanctuary as just one place, we’re missing a great opportunity to become living Christians who are temples of sanctuary for others. My home is a sanctuary. So is your home, your business, your car.”
“We call the sisters and they say, ‘How many of us do you need,’” she said. “I have been amazed time and time again by them. They are out there every day; they know policy, they know who’s voting on what.” When it comes to what the church should be doing, Ms. Cedillo advised, “follow the sisters, listen to them.”
In light of ongoing revelations of buses at migrant detention centers, some Catholics believe the offer of sanctuary has become a moral imperative. “I definitely think we should be doing it,” said Father Pham. “When it comes to people’s dignity, people’s lives—these are questions of faith, of who we are as a people. We can discern, but it’s not a discernment of which side we’re on. It’s a discernment of how we’re going to move forward. If we’re truly Catholic and Christian, what we have to do is very clear.”
“We have to be aware of the legal ramifications,” he added, and he noted sanctuary cannot just be the decision of a pastor: “Everyone [in the parish] is involved.”
Others who support the idea of sanctuary admit to its practical challenges. “Sanctuary is not a one-time thing,” said Ms. Cedillo. “Look at the Mennonites hosting Edith Espinal in Ohio—she’s been there for over a year. She doesn’t need just a bed but food and help for her children.”
And some worry about consequences on their overall ministry. “For us at the Mount, we’re already serving so many people that are economically strapped and facing our own economic challenges,” said Ms. Gresser. “To declare ourselves a sanctuary and violate the law, it would probably harm our institution.”
But Ms. Gresser wonders if the debate over sanctuary sometimes misses the mark. “What do we mean by sanctuary?” she asked. “At Mount St. Mary and most Catholic institutions, we will not cooperate with ICE or law enforcement who want to identify you without a clear court order mandating that we must do this.”
For her part, Ms. Pacheco questions the whole idea of making sanctuary just about churches. “If we think of sanctuary as just one place, we’re missing a great opportunity to become living Christians who are temples of sanctuary for others. My home is a sanctuary. So is your home, your business, your car. We are each called to be a place where the refuge of God is vivid and experienced.
“Don’t make me as an undocumented immigrant run to a church. Please, neighbor, open your door and let me be there.”
Mr. Cuevas agreed. “The church isn’t an entity upon the hill or in a white castle that can issue a statement and things will automatically happen. Anyone that feels like the church should be doing something, they are the church. Rather than demand something from their pastor, I wish they would get more involved.”
He also noted that alongside action, immigration reform is essential. “Immigration has been this can we’ve been kicking down the road for years and years.” It is still possible to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package, a goal long supported by U.S. bishops, he said. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. Both sides have to meet in the middle.”
Today some may think of Los Angeles as one of the safer U.S. cities to be an undocumented person. But that is just not true for the people Ms. Martinez serves. “It took a long time for the city to declare itself a sanctuary,” she said. “And the police say they’re not going to cooperate with ICE, but we have heard that in the past, and then we have shelter residents telling us they were detained [by police].
“The fear is always there.”
“I haven’t been as prayerful these last two years as I used to be,” Ms. Pacheco said, “and I’m sorry for that. It’s not God; it’s people making this difficult. But this feeling of not belonging, it makes me question my understanding of how I can belong to God.”
But she has also gained an unexpected sense of mission from her circumstances. She noted the Sunday’s Gospel on July 14, the parable of the Good Samaritan: “We can spend time criticizing the priest who didn’t stop...and we lose track of the kindness that made a difference. This time and moment is a great opportunity to choose: Who do you want to be?
“Being an undocumented person,” she said, “is a blessing as well. It makes you empathetic. I feel like the blind person that is touched by Jesus. He gives you a new sight.”
Correction July 30 12:44 pm EDT: The Most Rev. Mark Seitz was mistakenly referred to as the bishop of Austin; he is the bishop leader of the Diocese of El Paso, Tex.