Trump administration at odds with Catholic leaders on immigration policies
UPDATE: On Sept. 26 the Trump administration announced that it planned to reduce the refugee allowance for fiscal 2019-20, beginning on Oct. 1, to just 18,000, a historic low. It also anticipates 350,000 asylum claims next year and argues that “considering refugees and asylum seekers as part of the same relief effort is an accurate reflection of America’s generous protection-based immigration.”
According to the administration, the proposed ceiling “takes into account the ongoing security and humanitarian crisis on our border” and reflects a need to respond to a “massive” backlog of claims. An executive order issued by the president the same day will allow state and local governments to decline to participate in resettling refugees.
In a statement released today, Catholic Charities USA strongly opposed the reduction and urged that the refugee resettlement program not be put to use for “partisan-based purposes.”
“Catholic Charities recognizes the need to establish humane policies for accepting people into the country,” said Sister Donna Markham, the president and C.E.O. of C.C.U.S.A. “Any policy, however, should include generous provisions for accepting refugees who cannot return to their homelands. The United States must remain the beacon of hope to people who feel forgotten and abandoned by the world and maintain its status as a leader of refugee policy for all nations to follow.”
This has been the summer of discontent for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on U.S. immigration policy. Since June the U.S. bishops have released more than 10 statements reflecting their displeasure with a broad range of White House decisions on immigration.
The U.S.C.C.B. has criticized the administration’s treatment of migrant detainees, especially children, challenging policy that has resulted in the separation of families and led to inhumane conditions at detention sites. It has resisted White House plans to rewrite asylum rules and to allow temporary protected status for vulnerable migrant communities to expire, and it has deplored proposed cuts to foreign aid that bishops say will only drive more migrants to the U.S. border.
U.S. bishops have denounced aggressive deportation practices that “instigate panic in our communities” and do not “serve as an effective deterrent to irregular migration”; detention decisions that have led to “heartbreaking consequences for immigrant children”; and the administration’s new policy denying residency applications to legal immigrants if they use federally funded social services. The bishops say the Trump administration’s “public charge” policy threatens to “undermine family unity” and will mean that lawful immigrants will “forgo vital assistance, including enrollment in nutrition, housing, and medical programs.”
On Sept. 13 the U.S.C.C.B. weighed in on immigration again, this time on plans that critics charge will mean the end of the United States as a safe haven for the world’s refugees. Trump officials have systematically reduced overall target numbers for annual refugee resettlement in the United States and thrown up new bureaucratic obstacles and vetting procedures that have led to historic lows in refugee entries.
U.S. bishops: “Further reductions in the number of refugees allowed to seek freedom in the United States would be wholly counter to our values as a nation of immigrants. America welcomes refugees; that is who we are, that is what we do.”
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and U.S.C.C.B. president, and Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote: “Further reductions in the number of refugees allowed to seek freedom in the United States would be wholly counter to our values as a nation of immigrants.
“America welcomes refugees; that is who we are, that is what we do. Such reductions would undermine America’s leadership role as a global champion and protector of religious freedom and human rights.”
But refugees are only the latest targets of anti-immigration sentiment in the White House. The Trump administration in recent months has created new barriers to entry for virtually every type of would-be immigrant into the United States.
The White House has cut off foreign-born U.S. soldiers from established paths to naturalization through military service, extended detention timeframes for migrant children and suggested that it would unleash its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency at worksites around the country with the aim of deporting millions of undocumented workers. Thousands of T.P.S. recipients, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, now face deportation. The administration currently plans a rewrite of legal immigration guidelines with an eye on significant reductions to legal flows, pushing so-called merit immigration and ignoring family reunification aims long endorsed as humane and pro-family by the U.S.C.C.B.
Resistance to the president’s immigration policies is high when measured among all Catholics, but white Catholics offered Trump 56 percent of their vote in 2016 and a majority of white Catholics—51 percent—still maintain a favorable opinion of the president—many among them presumably support White House immigration proposals. Those who do are not only ignoring their bishops, said Kristin Heyer, discussing the subject via email, they are endorsing positions at sharp odds with church teaching on migration and its call to protect the lives and the human dignity of migrating people. Ms. Heyer is a professor of theological ethics at Boston College.
“The Catholic social tradition recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their borders," Ms. Heyer said, “but the right is not understood to be absolute. In the case of blatant human rights violations, the right to state sovereignty is relativized by the tradition’s primary commitment to protecting human dignity.”
Limits on migration may be set, she said, but the tradition “emphasizes that powerful nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate refugee flows.” She said that the right to seek asylum “must not be denied when people’s lives are genuinely threatened in their homeland.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports 5.6 million Syrian refugees. The United States accepted just 62 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2018.
“In situations where individuals face war, pervasive gang violence or desperate poverty,” Ms. Heyer said, “the tradition supports the right to migrate, so they can live free from credible fears of violence or the inability to feed their children.”
Underlying conditions in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, “such as the world’s highest murder rates, deaths linked to drug trafficking and organized crime, and endemic poverty,” said Ms. Heyer, indeed make moral claims on U.S. policymakers. The value of securing borders must be weighed against the right of the region’s violence-weary migrants “to seek protection,” she said.
The moral onus on the United States to respond to the hemispheric migration crisis also derives from the significant differential in wealth and power enjoyed by Northern Americans, according to Ms. Heyer. Simply put, according to Catholic tradition, wealthier states have a special moral obligation to assist economically pressed neighbors. The extent that U.S. economic and political policy also drives migration flows adds to its humanitarian obligations at the border.
“The nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border bisects the sharpest divide in average income on the planet,” Ms. Heyer said. “Beyond proximity, however, the impact of U.S. military and economic interventions in the Latin American region, coupled with our nation’s completely outmoded visa policies, demand basic, unmet responsibilities in justice.
“Revamping labor visa allotments to better match actual low-wage labor needs and practices would…move toward a more just policy,” she added. “For now we still hold up ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Help Wanted’ signs simultaneously, or too often recruit workers, exploit them and then deport them when convenient, as we saw with the raids in Mississippi earlier this month.”
The Trump administration’s upheaval of existing norms regarding refugee quotas and asylum applications could not be more ill-timed, according to Ms. Heyer. Around the world, the United Nations is reporting record numbers of forcibly displaced persons—some estimates run as high as 70 million—even as the administration’s “unprecedented resistance” to international commitments to resettle refugees has intensified.
Kristin Heyer: “Preaching and advocacy should frame our complicity in generating migration flows rather than treating this as an unexpected ‘crisis’ or ‘invasion.’”
“This summer the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were 5.6 million Syrian refugees,” she said. The United States accepted just 62 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2018.
Since the adoption of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States had been the world leader in refugee resettlement, but its 2018 performance was so poor that Canada, with less than a tenth of U.S. population, assumed the top position, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Pew reports that Canada accepted 28,000 refugees in 2018; the United States resettled only 23,000, dropping significantly from the 97,000 recorded in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. In 2017 only 33,000 refugees were admitted into the United States.
President Trump proposed on Sept. 12 to reduce the refugee admissions ceiling for 2020 to 30,000—the lowest figure since the program’s creation in 1980. Ceilings, of course, reflect the high number the administration is willing to accept, not the number of people it is compelled to accept or will actually allow into the United States.
According to some media reports, the president’s advisor on immigration, Stephen Miller, seeks to reduce refugee entries to zero in 2020. Previous efforts to impede refugee resettlement over the last two years meant that the Trump administration did not even meet its already reduced resettlement targets. The downsizing of refugee flows into the United States has resulted in the serious breakdown of refugee resettlement infrastructure, as offices that once handled hundreds of refugees have been forced to lay off staff or shut down altogether.
In their statement on Sept. 13, Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Vásquez pointed out that refugees to the United States have made significant cultural and economic contributions. “The 3.4 million refugees that America has welcomed since 1975 have paid billions of dollars in taxes, founded companies, earned citizenship and bought homes at notably high rates [compared with the native-born],” they said.
“As the Catholic Church prepares to celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees” on Sept. 29, “we are reminded of Pope Francis urging us all to work for a ‘globalization of solidarity’ with refugees, not a globalization of ‘indifference,’” the bishops said. “In light of refugees’ extraordinary contributions to our country, and of the world’s struggle with the greatest forced displacement crisis on record and historic highs in religious persecution, we categorically oppose any further reductions in the refugee resettlement program.”
Ms. Heyer, acknowledging the bishops’ statements on immigration, is looking for even bolder action. “I think leaders need to be unafraid to condemn destructive policies and practices that are harming children, separating families, demonizing migrants and rolling back historic protections,” she said. “I also think preaching and advocacy should frame our complicity in generating migration flows rather than treating this as an unexpected ‘crisis’ or ‘invasion.’” She suggests critical commentary that highlights how U.S. consumers “directly benefit from underpaying for goods and services and politicians benefit from unfounded scapegoating.”
In a joint statement issued on Sept. 16, also anticipating the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Timothy P. Kesicki, the president of the Jesuit Conference, and the provincial superiors of the six Jesuit provinces of the United States and Canada called on the Jesuit community to accelerate its advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants.
“Compassionate policy begins with asking the right questions,” the Jesuits wrote. “Rather than asking how the government can prevent or deter migrants from coming here, we should instead ask ourselves why they have chosen to make such a dangerous journey, and how we can better promote improved economic and political conditions in the countries that people are leaving. When people are forced to flee their homes and come to our countries seeking security, we should ask how we can welcome and protect them.”
According to the statement, U.S. and Canadian policies and procedures governing the treatment of migrants “must put migrants’ humanity before their legal status, nationality, or economic potential.”
“A human-centered approach to migration,” the Jesuit leaders said, “offers an opportunity to move beyond the fear and confusion that characterize many of our current policies, instead choosing compassion and understanding.”