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Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2022
Migrants cross the Mexico-U.S. border to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 12. According to the Ciudad Juarez Human Rights Office, hundreds of mostly Central American migrants arrived in buses and crossed the border to seek asylum in the U.S., after spending the night in shelters. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)Migrants cross the Mexico-U.S. border to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 12. According to the Ciudad Juarez Human Rights Office, hundreds of mostly Central American migrants arrived in buses and crossed the border to seek asylum in the U.S., after spending the night in shelters. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

Catholic Charities USA officials pushed back strongly against allegations from Republican House of Representatives members that its humanitarian responses to the U.S. border crisis were potentially criminal acts. In a statement released on Dec. 15, C.C.U.S.A. said those accusations were “both fallacious and factually inaccurate. Our life-saving humanitarian work neither violates federal laws nor endangers communities.”

“As our nation grapples with escalating turmoil at the southwestern border of the United States and a highly charged political environment, it is incredibly disturbing for Catholic Charities—the domestic humanitarian arm of the U.S. Catholic Church—to be accused of violating federal laws, fueling the dramatic increase in migrants crossing the border and inhibiting immigration enforcement by facilitating the transport of migrants to the nation’s interior,” C.C.U.S.A. said in its statement.

G.O.P. accusations are “both fallacious and factually inaccurate. Our life-saving humanitarian work neither violates federal laws nor endangers communities.”

“The ministry of care provided to migrants by Catholic Charities has been ongoing, across multiple administrations, since our founding in 1910,” the agency said. “To care for people who are at-risk, including vulnerable people on the move, is a part of the fabric of the global Catholic Church and is mandated by the gospel.”

C.C.U.S.A. was responding to a letter it received on Dec. 14 from four House representatives demanding that C.C.U.S.A. preserve documents “related to any expenditures submitted for reimbursement from the federal government related to migrants encountered at the southern border. This applies to all funds associated with shelter, food, transportation, basic health and first aid, COVID-19 testing and associated medical care needed during quarantine and isolation, and other supportive services.”

The letter—from Congress members Lance Gooden and Jake Ellzey of Texas, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin and Andy Biggs of Arizona—included a warning: “Next Congress, we will continue to investigate your organization’s role in facilitating the border crisis, your potential violations of federal law, and your misuse of taxpayer funds.”

Accusations that humanitarian groups like C.C.U.S.A. have been engaged in human trafficking because of efforts to assist migrant arrivals and asylum claimants in the United States have been a favorite canard among right wing media outlets in recent years, though virtually all C.C.U.S.A.’s humanitarian efforts are vetted and even funded by government agencies, and migrants and asylum seekers are typically delivered into C.C.U.S.A.’s hands by members of the U.S. Border Patrol themselves.

C.C.U.S.A insisted in its response that its “humanitarian care (food, clean clothes, bathing facilities, overnight respite) is provided legally.”

“It typically begins after an asylum-seeker has been processed and released by the federal government. Both U.S. and international law provide for the right to seek asylum at another country’s border.”

“The ministry of care provided to migrants by Catholic Charities has been ongoing, across multiple administrations, since our founding in 1910.”

C.C.U.S.A. reminded the members of Congress: “Without the assistance of Catholic Charities and other humanitarian organizations, many migrant families and individuals would be on the streets of our nation’s communities. These communities are better equipped to handle large numbers of migrants precisely because of our humanitarian services.”

The letter from the G.O.P. Congress members was delivered to Catholic Charities national headquarters the same day that Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott likewise seemed to target Catholic Charities and other humanitarian agencies that work with migrants on both sides of the border. In a letter to the Texas Attorney General’s office, Mr. Abbott, a Catholic, urged the state’s chief prosecutor to “initiate an investigation into the role of NGOs in planning and facilitating the illegal transportation of illegal immigrants across our borders.”

According to the governor: “There have been recent reports that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have assisted with illegal border crossings near El Paso. We further understand NGOs may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso.”

He advised Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton: “I stand ready to work with you to craft any sensible legislative solutions your office may propose that are aimed at solving the ongoing border crisis and the role that NGOs may play in encouraging it.”

Dylan Corbett, the founding executive director of the Hope Border Institute, an advocacy and service agency based in El Paso, said the two letters represented “an escalation in anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott likewise seemed to target Catholic Charities and other humanitarian agencies that work with migrants on both sides of the border.

“I’m worried now that as we enter a new Congress that there’s going to be greater politicization of what’s going on and attacks on the church’s agencies, which are doing their best in a really difficult environment with few resources to provide a dignified welcome for people at the border.”

Mr. Corbett bristled at insinuations that church agencies are engaged in human trafficking because of their assistance to migrants. “That’s categorically false,” he said.

“The reality is…if there were legal pathways for people to come to the United States who are in need of protection, that would be the biggest dent that you could make in human trafficking at the border. But in the meantime, Catholic agencies at the border are providing humanitarian relief to people in need, to the vulnerable, and working as hard as they can to make sure that what few windows of opportunity are available for protection for people who need it” remain open.

C.C.U.S.A. and other humanitarian groups working at the border have been similarly targeted in the past because of the many federally approved and funded programs its agencies provide in a humanitarian role across the Southwest. The impetus for this latest round of allegations from Republicans appears to be the impending court-ordered termination of the use of Title 42, a public health regulation that has been employed during the Covid-19 pandemic by the Trump and Biden administrations to turn back migrants at the border.

In his letter to Mr. Paxton, Mr. Abbott wrote: “With the end of Title 42 just days away, the number of illegal immigrants crossing the Texas–Mexico border has reached an all-time high. Indeed, this past Sunday, over a 24-hour span, over 2,600 illegal immigrants crossed the border near El Paso and illegally entered Texas. These numbers are likely to increase in the coming weeks.”

In November a federal court ordered the end of the emergency use of Title 42 by Dec. 21. A coalition of Republican attorneys general from 19 states asked for an emergency suspension of that ruling on Dec. 12.

“The reality is if there were legal pathways for people to come to the United States who are in need of protection that would be the biggest dent that you could make in human trafficking at the border.”

Mr. Corbett called Mr. Abbott’s letter political grandstanding that “certainly sounds like a move towards criminalizing humanitarian work, good Samaritans.” He called it irresponsible and potentially dangerous to humanitarian workers who have already been confronted by self-appointed border militia members. He noted that El Paso has already endured its share of suffering because of “rhetoric that demonizes migrants and attacks border communities,” recalling a terrorist attack in 2019 at an El Paso department store that left 23 dead.

Beyond those perils, he said that the governor’s accusations come at a particularly difficult moment “when we need solutions, we need collaboration and we need genuine leadership from our political leaders.”

“In my community of El Paso right now,” Mr. Corbett said, “what’s happening doesn’t look at all like the images that the governor is painting…This is a community that’s coming together; we’re doing our best.

“And I can say that we’re working in excellent collaboration at the local level among federal authorities, our local governments, border enforcement agencies, humanitarian organizations [and] N.G.O.s on both sides of the border to deal with a really broken situation,” Mr. Corbett said. “We’re picking up the pieces...of a broken immigration system. We shouldn’t have to be working at cross purposes with anyone in government.”

Joan Rosenhauer, the executive director of Jesuit Refugee Services/USA, responded to the two letters in a statement released to America. “JRS/USA works every day with people who have fled violence and persecution and are seeking legal opportunities to request asylum in the U.S.,” she said. “Many wait patiently in Mexico for months for an opportunity to enter the U.S. legally, and we help them seek those legal pathways.

“Their stories need to be understood,” she said, “but accusations like this can create a false narrative, which can be damaging, about the work that N.G.O.s are doing at the border and ultimately cause harm to asylum-seekers and the organizations serving them.”

Concluding their statement to the four members of Congress, C.C.U.S.A. called once again for the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform legislative package that has been tied up in Congress since 2013.

“Let us be clear,” C.C.U.S.A officials said. “The U.S. immigration system is in dire need of reform; Catholic Charities and all those agencies and individuals responding to this national crisis are operating within a broken system. We urge all Americans to ask the administration and their Congressional representatives to act on this important issue, as we have done.”

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