Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kevin ClarkeFebruary 29, 2024
Migrants from Venezuela wait next to people from other nationalities who are in line to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, Jan. 4, 2023. (OSV News photo/Paul Ratje, Reuters)Migrants from Venezuela wait next to people from other nationalities who are in line to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, Jan. 4, 2023. (OSV News photo/Paul Ratje, Reuters)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

The U.S. bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, first convened in 2012, was criticized from the start by some lay Catholics who felt the two-week crusade was, as one skeptic put it, “election year political posturing” intended to undermine the Obama re-election campaign. At the time of the first Fortnight, Catholic bishops were confounded by a crowd of federal requirements for employee health insurance that included coverage for abortion and contraception and concerned that church positions on abortion and human sexuality could mean the loss of federal contracts for humanitarian services offered by Catholic providers.

But with fights over insurance regulations long resolved, in recent years it has been the church’s various works of mercy for migrants that have become the most acutely threatened by antagonists at both the state and federal level. Many critics of the church, fulminating over alleged open border policies, have come to equate care for migrants with “great replacement” conspiracies. If in its first years, the bishops’ campaign for religious freedom seemed directed at the U.S. left, it is actors on the hard right who have now emerged as the most significant threat to religious freedom.

If in its first years, the bishops’ campaign for religious freedom seemed directed at the U.S. left, it is actors on the hard right who have now emerged as the most significant threat to religious freedom.

In the latest of a series of acts targeting faith-motivated service to migrants, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued an El Paso shelter, Annunciation House. The lawsuit threatens to revoke the organization’s nonprofit registration, thus putting it out of business, after its leadership declined to provide his office with internal documents it demanded.

Mr. Paxton, picking up a theme often bandied about in hard-right precincts of the internet, has accused Annunciation House of human smuggling. He called Annunciation House—which for al most 50 years has provided food, clothing, water and guidance to migrants—a “stash house,” connecting its efforts to traffickers who deliver migrants to the U.S. border from troubled states like Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In a press release, Annunciation House defended its work, charging that Mr. Paxton’s true aim is “not records” but simply to find a way to close down the agency because his office “considers it a crime for a Catholic organization to provide shelter to refugees.”

“Annunciation House has provided hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees for over forty-six years,” the agency responded, noting that “this work of accompaniment” derives from a Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger “no different from that of the schools who enroll children of refugees, the clinics and hospitals who care for the needs of refugees, and the churches, synagogues, and mosques who welcome families to join in worship.”

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso quickly issued a statement supporting Annunciation House. “Let me be clear. For the church’s part, we will endeavor to work with all in pursuit of the common good of our city and nation,” Bishop Seitz wrote on Feb. 22. “We will not be intimidated in our work to serve Jesus Christ in our sisters and brothers fleeing danger and seeking to keep their families together.”

In an email to America, Kerry Alys Robinson, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities USA, defended the Texas shelter. “For decades, Annunciation House has earned praise and admiration for the critically urgent services it provides to immigrants and refugees,” she said. “The growing misrepresentations and demonization of the humanitarian ministries of the Catholic Church should concern and disturb not only Catholics but supporters of religious liberty and all people of good will.”

Annunciation House’s director, Reuben Garcia, responded to Mr. Paxton’s charges at a press conference on Feb. 23. “I personally am taken aback by the use of words like ‘smuggling,’ to call our houses of hospitality ‘stash houses,’” he said. “Is there no shame?”

There is no “evidence or research to support the claim that the humanitarian and religious services provided by Catholic organizations incentivize unlawful migration.”

But Mr. Paxton was neither shamed nor deterred by the significant pushback his lawsuit has produced. “The chaos at the southern border has created an environment where NGOs, funded with taxpayer money from the Biden Administration, facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling,” he said in a press statement from his office. “While the federal government perpetuates the lawlessness destroying this country, my office works day in and day out to hold these organizations responsible for worsening illegal immigration.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, defended church ministries to migrants and noted the special need to protect religious liberty in a statement released on Feb. 26. “It is hard to imagine what our country would look like without the good works that people of faith carry out in the public square,” he said. “For this, we can thank our strong tradition of religious liberty, which allows us to live out our faith in full.”

He added, “As the tragic situation along our border with Mexico increasingly poses challenges for American communities and vulnerable persons alike, we must especially preserve the freedom of Catholics and other people of faith to assist their communities and meet migrants’ basic human needs. I join my brother bishops in the State of Texas in expressing solidarity with those seeking simply to fulfill the fundamental biblical call: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

This is not the first time Catholic agencies have found themselves caught in G.O.P. crosshairs because of immigration. In May 2023, a group of 21 Republican House members co-sponsored legislation aimed squarely at Catholic Charities and migrating people. Among other provisions meant to beef up enforcement capacity and resume construction of a border wall, the Secure the Border Act of 2023 prohibits funding to faith-based organizations and other N.G.O.s like Catholic Charities for direct services they provide to migrants. The bill narrowly passed in the G.O.P.-controlled House of Representatives in May along a party-line vote. It has gone nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

And in a letter to Catholic Charities USA in December 2022, some of the same Republican House members demanded that C.C.U.S.A. agencies preserve documents, suggesting they would be necessary for a potential House investigation into federal funding for migrant assistance efforts.

The Secure the Border Act of 2023 prohibits funding to faith-based organizations and other N.G.O.s like Catholic Charities for direct services they provide to migrants.

The idea that Catholic groups in the United States act as the final leg in a hemispheric human smuggling operation has been kicked around for years by right-wing, for-profit conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, but a Heritage Foundation report and follow-up commentary in December 2022 added a veneer of respectability to the Jones-level paranoia. Heritage alleged that the Biden administration is deliberately opening borders “and mass-releasing millions of illegal aliens into the country,” additionally accusing Catholic and other faith-based agencies of assisting the administration in that effort through their institutional works of mercy.

Directors of Catholic Charities efforts at the border have, no surprise, denied being part of human smuggling networks, pointing out that they only assist migrants who have already crossed the border—people most often often delivered to Catholic entities by Border Patrol after being processed as asylum applicants. As part of that process, C.C.U.S.A. agencies may provide basic sustenance and clothing, and they will assist migrants in reaching final destinations across the United States in locations where they have sponsors and where their asylum applications will be adjudicated.

In a December 2022 statement, Catholic Charities USA called human trafficking accusations “both fallacious and factually inaccurate.”

“Our life-saving humanitarian work neither violates federal laws nor endangers communities,” C.C.U.S.A. said. “Our 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 statement continued. “Without the assistance of Catholic Charities and other humanitarian organizations, many migrant families and individuals would be on the streets of the nation’s communities. These communities are better equipped to handle large numbers of migrants precisely because of our humanitarian services.”

According to the U.S.C.C.B., in a fact sheet defending Catholic ministries that serve migrants and refugees, there is no “evidence or research to support the claim that the humanitarian and religious services provided by Catholic organizations incentivize unlawful migration. Rather, many studies have concluded that a varied and often complex set of push-pull factors typically influence a person’s decision to migrate.”

In the end, Catholics working at the border say they are merely following the most basic demands of the Gospel, arguing that the work, an expression of Catholic faith in action, is protected by the First Amendment. For decades, this has been a more or less uncontested belief as the church has developed its expertise in migrant assistance and refugee resettlement with the support and gratitude of the federal government. Those once uncontroversial works of mercy and public service now appear to be the latest casualty in a culture war waged from the political right.

More from America:

A deeper dive:

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024