U.S. bishops weigh in on border deal negotiations

migrants Migrants illegally cross the Rio Grande between designated U.S.-Mexico ports of entry. | Credit: David Peinado Romero/Shutterstock

The U.S. bishops cautioned against proposals being considered by Congress and the White House to fund aid to Ukraine on the condition that migration is further restricted, saying they are “deeply concerned” about the “real-life impact” of a crackdown at the border.

In a letter to Congress on Friday, the bishops said the policies currently being considered as a compromise deal between Democrats and Republicans could have a devastating impact on migrants attempting to enter the U.S.

The bishops said “attempting to resolve complex migration-related challenges that have festered for decades” in the “time-sensitive context of emergency funding is not conducive to prudent policymaking.”

“Whether curtailing due process through rapid expulsions and nationwide expedited removal, mandating harmful and excessive detention, or making it even more difficult to attain humanitarian relief through heightened legal standards,” the bishops urged Congress to “carefully consider the real-life impact such proposals will likely have on vulnerable people.”

This comes as numerous Republicans have vowed to hold up an emergency spending bill with over $100 billion in aid to allied countries including Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, until Democrats agree to significant changes to current border security policies. The Biden White House announced that it is open to increased restrictions on immigration to secure Republican support for a multibillion-dollar foreign aid package.

El Paso, Texas, Bishop Mark Seitz emphasized to CNA that an emergency foreign aid package is not the appropriate setting to be making compromises on the border. He said that the proposals being considered by Congress are attempts at “quick fixes” that he said are “going to cost our nation much more money” and “will lead to many more deaths of immigrants on the border.” 

“They’re not addressed to really lessening the flow of people or inhibiting their willingness to risk their lives,” he said, adding that “no amount of laws or no fence, no matter how high, is going to deter them from trying.”

The bishops’ letter was written and signed by four leading members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The bishops who signed onto the letter were Seitz, head of the bishops’ Committee on Migration; Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge, head of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades, head of the Committee on Religious Liberty; and Lebanese-rite Bishop Elias Zaidan, head of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Bishop Mark Seitz. File photo.
Bishop Mark Seitz. File photo.

Though they note that Catholic social teaching recognizes a “country’s right and responsibility to manage its borders in accordance with the common good,” the bishops said that “this need not and should not occur at the expense of our nation’s fundamental commitment to humanitarian protection.”

In their letter the bishops acknowledged that “unfortunately, today, asylum and temporary protections are seen by some as the only realistic opportunities for family and employment-based immigration,” adding that “it is possible to rectify this without sacrificing life-saving protections.”

Texas bishops also speaking up

Fort Worth, Texas, Bishop Michael Olson told CNA that he agrees with the USCCB letter that tighter border security alone is not enough to address the migrant crisis.

“It doesn’t substitute for the need for substantive immigration reform,” he said. “We do have to control our borders, but the control of our border is not everything. There has to be a humanitarian approach, it has to be international, and it has to especially deal with those who are perpetrators of violence and human trafficking and drugs.”

Olson said the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area has become a hotbed for human and drug traffickers moving through the region. Without both immigration reform and a secure border, he said that crime, trafficking, and the exploitation of the migrants will continue.

“The problem with the Republicans and Democrats is they say it’s either one or the other,” he said. “It’s either we just build a wall and keep everybody out, which is naive and not a Catholic or Christian response. Or just simply, it’s open borders, everybody come here for free stuff forever and that’s also not honest.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, head of the majority Hispanic South Texas Archdiocese of San Antonio, told CNA that his diocese has “witnessed and been impacted” by the “increasing numbers of migrants crossing the border.”

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The archbishop said “we need security and clarity to properly enforce laws while ensuring human rights and due process.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio on May 23, 2022. Youtube screenshot taken from Today’s Catholic Newspaper, a service of the Archdiocese of San Antonio
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio on May 23, 2022. Youtube screenshot taken from Today’s Catholic Newspaper, a service of the Archdiocese of San Antonio

“Elected officials must stop making immigration a matter of partisan politics and reform this system, which all acknowledge is broken. This goes beyond legal and civil action, and the Church’s position on this is not political. We encourage Catholics to take part in this civic engagement and strive for long-term solutions which uphold dignity and pursue the common good.”

“Catholic Charities and other organizations have done tremendous work and will continue helping wherever we can,” he noted, “but the situation is becoming more complicated and must be addressed by the government responsibly and compassionately.”

Catholic policy experts raise concerns 

Andrew Arthur, a Catholic, former immigration judge, and resident law and policy fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, told CNA that “with due respect to the bishops” he believes their letter “is extremely short-sighted.” 

Former U.S. Immigration Judge Andrew Arthur. Credit: Center for Immigration Studies
Former U.S. Immigration Judge Andrew Arthur. Credit: Center for Immigration Studies

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“Controlling illegal entry at the border is absolutely crucial,” he said, adding that he believes “if we can’t control illegal immigration” then “the American people will lose faith in legal immigration.”

Arthur said he believes Biden’s willingness to compromise with the GOP’s demands is a good sign because “we need to address this issue on a bipartisan basis if we’re ever going to resolve it.”

According to Arthur, the border policies proposed by the GOP “are needed changes” that will “make it much easier for us to provide asylum to the truly deserving” while also keeping Americans from being exploited.

Arthur said that the current state of the border encourages “people to hire criminal smugglers” and “rapacious abusers” to bring them into the United States. Without a secure border, Arthur said, the result will be more crime and exploitation of migrants, especially of migrant children.

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Catholic humanitarian aid group the Hope Border Institute, meanwhile, was highly critical of the Biden administration for its willingness to go along with Republican demands.

Corbett told CNA that he agrees with the bishops that the policies being considered would be counterproductive.

“The proposals which Biden’s White House is greenlighting will exacerbate the situation at the border with increased irregular crossings, strain on border enforcement, and more border deaths,” Corbett said. 

“This is an abdication of American leadership at a precarious time of worldwide migration,” Corbett said, adding that “more people are dying at the border under the current administration than ever before.”

“This potential bartering away of asylum at the border by a Democratic president could be more consequential than many Trump-era policies and represent the most restrictive change to asylum law in decades,” he said. “The border loses, migrants lose, the country and its moral fabric lose.”

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