The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to Senate leaders Tuesday in which they expressed “serious concerns” about the Senate’s new bipartisan border deal, urging them to reject portions of the bill that the bishops said would “restrict access to asylum” and further endanger migrants, especially women and children.

The letter, written by El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration and addressed to Senate majority and minority leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, stated that “while taking no position on the overall measure,” the bishops “believe this effort to make sweeping changes to immigration law — particularly in the context of this supplemental funding bill — is flawed, both in terms of substance and form.”

“Rather than sustainably reducing migration to the U.S.-Mexico border, consistent with the common good and the good-faith intentions of many lawmakers,” Seitz said that “several changes proposed in this bill would unjustly undermine due process and pave the way for avoidable and potentially life-threatening harm to be inflicted on vulnerable persons seeking humanitarian protection in the United States.”

“As shepherds committed to defending the sanctity of human life and upholding the God-given dignity of all, we implore you to reject those changes,” the letter said.

What is the Senate’s border deal? 

The Senate’s bipartisan border deal, which was brokered by Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma; Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut; and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, is part of a larger 370-page “Emergency National Security Supplemental Appropriations” bill

The bill proposes $118.2 billion for various national security priorities, including the war in Ukraine, Israel, and support for Taiwan as well as humanitarian support for Palestine. Also in the bill is $20.23 billion for various programs designed to address the festering migration crisis along the U.S. southwestern border.

After months of secret negotiations, the details of the border deal were finally released Sunday evening. Since being made public, the bill has been lambasted by progressives for being too restrictive and by conservatives for being too lax.

Despite the support of McConnell, an increasing number of Republican senators have expressed their disapproval of the deal, casting doubt on whether it will be able to pass the Senate.

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Nevertheless, the Senate is set to vote on the measure this week, with the first procedural vote set for Wednesday. Even if the legislation passes the Senate, it will still need to clear the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson has already pronounced it “dead on arrival.”

Bishops detail concerns

Seitz, a longtime advocate for migrants’ rights, said the bishops’ perspective on the bill is based on Catholic social teaching, which, he said, “recognizes a country’s right and responsibility to manage its borders in accordance with the common good.”

“As we have constantly implored,” Seitz explained, “this need not and should not occur at the expense of our nation’s fundamental commitment to humanitarian protection.” “The legitimate interests of the state to regulate immigration and safeguard the well-being of the existing population should not be carried out in such a way that concern for the human lives of newcomers is set aside and vice versa,” he said.

Specifically, Seitz expressed concerns with three sections of the bill that he said would “effectively mandate rushed proceedings for most people seeking protection, severely limiting due process and access to asylum,” “heighten the credible fear standard, making it even more difficult than it already is under current law for those with bona fide asylum claims to pursue relief in the United States,” and “would establish an expulsion authority akin to what was used under Title 42, inevitably producing the same opportunity for harmful, arbitrary, and counterproductive treatment of vulnerable persons.”

Apart from those objections, Seitz voiced support for several “positive provisions” in the bill, including “increased opportunities for family reunification and employment-based immigration, expanded access to work authorization for newcomers, and ensuring vulnerable children have assistance navigating their immigration proceedings.”

Consistent with the bishops’ objection to House efforts in December to make additional aid to Ukraine contingent on more restrictive border policies, Seitz said that “attempting to resolve complex migration-related challenges that have festered for decades in the time-sensitive context of an emergency funding bill is not conducive to prudent policymaking.”

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“We will always commend good-faith bipartisan cooperation to address the challenges confronting our nation, and we cannot achieve the necessary reform of our immigration system without authentic bipartisanship,” Seitz said. “Nevertheless, we respectfully urge you to reject provisions in the Senate’s version of H.R. 815 that further restrict access to asylum, curtail due process for noncitizens, and create authorities inconsistent with the United States’ obligations under international law.”

Copies of Seitz’s letter were sent to all U.S. senators as well as House Speaker Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The letter concluded by stating that the U.S. bishops “remain committed” to helping Congress find a “transparent, well-informed, bicameral, and truly bipartisan approach” to addressing the border crisis.

Fort Worth, Tucson bishops also raise objections

Seitz was not the only bishop to raise concerns about the Senate border deal. 

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, told CNA that the Senate’s border deal is “very much lacking” measures to combat the growing problem of human trafficking at the border. 

Olson has previously sounded the alarm that an underreported aspect of the border controversy is the rise of human trafficking and sexual exploitation by criminal elements. He has said that cartels and traffickers use Fort Worth as one of their hubs to traffic humans and drugs to different parts of the country. 

Those who live near the border “are in a tough situation,” Olson said. Though the Church is called to help all those in need, Olson warned that “naive” policies that encourage unrestricted immigration also encourage more trafficking and crime. The situation is made worse, Olson added, when the federal government is not “doing its part in maintaining a legitimate border.” 

“All of this is very diabolical and unless we really see this as a multinational problem and really hold those who are perpetrating this in both supply and demand accountable, it’s going to eat us alive,” he said. “As a people of prayer, who are rooted in justice and charity, we have to humbly recognize that this is a complicated issue that cannot be solved overnight and it cannot be solved without looking at the legitimate role and the legitimate function of a national border.”

Olson noted that he is not “promoting a naive view that we have endless resources and that somehow everybody who’s coming to the border is either de facto our enemy or de facto our friends.”

“The just rule of law is required to promote true justice and also true charity because there are realistic limits to human resources and unless we address this issue in a measured and ordered way, in light of these other issues as well, we’re not going to be able to take care of the poor and the vulnerable who are already here, and we see that happening in many of our larger cities.” 

Meanwhile, Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona, whose diocese includes 372 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, told CNA on Monday that he “cannot agree with or endorse provisions that could unjustly undermine due process for those seeking humanitarian protection.”  

“I echo the much-repeated refrain that our immigration system is broken, and I welcome all efforts at improvement. However, I am not without substantial concerns when studying the proposed bipartisan immigration legislation currently under review,” Weisenburger said, adding that some of the bill’s provisions would result in migrants “facing extreme violence or even death if forced to return to their home of origin.” 

“I likewise am deeply concerned,” Weisenburger went on, “that establishing almost impossible standards for those legitimately applying for asylum will have the unintended consequence of large numbers of those who are vulnerable or in grave crisis turning instead to smugglers, human traffickers, gangs, and other criminal elements.” 

Weisenburger said that diocesan ministries, such as Catholic Community Services and the Kino Border Initiative, “routinely see how anxious these criminals are to prey upon the weakest — oftentimes women and children.” 

“While many refer to the situation as a crisis at the border, those actually working with it every day and ministering to legally processed asylum seekers view the situation primarily as a humanitarian crisis with families, women, and children, and other individuals fleeing violence and impossibly difficult situations around the world — hoping and praying for safety and a better life,” he said.   

What other Catholic border leaders are saying

Dylan Corbett, a Catholic leader and executive director of the Hope Border Institute, told CNA that he is opposed to the deal because he believes it “would represent the most significant assault on asylum we’ve seen.” 

Corbett said pivoting to a hardline enforcement posture “would make life for many vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers even more heart-wrenchingly difficult.” He added there is “very little in the bill for legal migration, which is what we really need” and that this should serve as “a wake-up call” for Catholics. 

“This bill is an example of how the politicization of the border has made any progress on immigration nearly impossible,” he said, adding that “it’s clearer than ever that we can’t rely on politicians to get the job done.” 

Meanwhile, Andrew Arthur, a Catholic, former immigration judge, and resident law and policy fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, told CNA that the Senate deal “simply codifies in statute, ‘catch and release’ policies” and “will simply make the border crisis worse.” 

Arthur said “taken as a whole the bill is an overwhelming negative and what positive improvements they’ve created are not sufficient to do anything to improve the situation.” 

Arthur posted an analysis of the bill in which he criticized the measure in detail for doing nothing to close legal loopholes used by human smugglers and for provisions that he said “mandate” border agents to release certain migrants.