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Mark J. SeitzMarch 14, 2023
people going into a vehicle next to the border wall with mexicoMigrants detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing into the United States from Mexico to request asylum get in a vehicle to be transferred to a detention center in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 19, 2022. The Biden administration is weighing the reinstatement of a family detention policy for migrants who cross the U.S. border without legal authorization. (OSV News photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

In 1937, the Russian mystic, priest and refugee Sergei Bulgakov wrote provocatively that the church “must always remain in relation to the state an anarchic force.”

Having been forced into exile by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Bulgakov could be forgiven his rhetorical excess. He went to Paris, where he would become one of the brightest theological minds of the century. Many of his countrymen were able to cross borders in Europe and Latin America as refugees before ultimately building a future in the United States.

For many people at or near the U.S.-Mexico border today, affected by the reality of forced migration, an opportunity like that might soon be impossible.

In May, President Biden’s new asylum transit ban is set to go into effect. While there are exceptions, the ban unnecessarily places onerous hurdles before migrants obliged to pass through multiple countries on their way to the United States. It is temporary, but it is not difficult to imagine the policy being extended when it expires in two years. The ban’s overall effect will be to further diminish the rights of vulnerable persons on the move at the border.

A policy that leads to adverse outcomes because of the national origin of those in need is indefensibly regressive.

The new policy will increase burdens on neighboring countries, like Mexico, that are already wrestling with displacement due to violence and instability. And we can expect an increase in both the exploitation of migrants by traffickers and migrant deaths, now at record levels, which occur whenever legal pathways at the border are restricted.

The administration will provide temporary entry to a limited number of individuals from Latin America. But those options are not connected to asylum, which is what the most vulnerable coming to the border are hoping to access. And the administration has not provided those options for those fleeing northern Central American countries, perpetuating a longstanding pattern of discriminatory policies in that region. A policy that leads to adverse outcomes because of the national origin of those in need is indefensibly regressive.

There was hope that after the damaging immigration policies of the previous administration, the Biden administration would redress the wrongs done and begin putting into place policies more consistent with justice, human dignity and the longstanding contributions of migrants to American life.

Some of the worst policies have been rolled back, even as congressional inaction remains an intractable obstacle to passing broader reforms. But in many instances, the administration’s actions have been tepid and fear-driven and, in the case of the asylum transit ban, harmful.

Policies that fail to secure protections for the vulnerable are morally deficient. Death simply cannot be an acceptable part of the overhead costs of our immigration policies.

In my work as a bishop in a border diocese, this is an urgent pastoral issue. In the river that runs alongside my community and defines our border with Mexico, too many mothers and fathers and children continue to drown. And even more are dying in the desert as a result of our national indifference.

Government must regulate the border and guarantee the rights of asylum seekers and all vulnerable migrants. Policies that fail to secure protections for the vulnerable are morally deficient. Death simply cannot be an acceptable part of the overhead costs of our immigration policies.

Following the horrific mass displacement of World War II, U.S. leadership was key in developing global protections for refugees and asylum seekers. At a time when innovating and strengthening these protections are required, we are instead chipping away at them, placing asterisks and caveats on the progress we have made.

In this moment of frustration, during our Eastertide eucharistic celebrations, we might reflect with more intention on how our sharing of the transformed gifts of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, can generate a culture of renewed solidarity and hospitality. And on how the real liturgy of welcoming the flesh of Christ in the poor and migrant, which finds expression in our works of charity, might provide, perhaps not an “anarchic force,” but a creative counterexample that uproots fear and shows that humanity and compassion are possible.

The only crisis at the border is a moral crisis. And the only failure is one of courage and justice.

[Related: “Joe Biden’s anti-Catholic shift on immigration”]

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