El Paso bishop criticizes Texas border efforts, laments ‘anti-immigrant’ rhetoric

Bishop Mark Seitz Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso speaks at the “Responding to Changing Realities at the U.S. Border and Beyond" conference, hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic University of America on April 11, 2024. | Credit: Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America

Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso criticized a Texas law that increases the state’s role in deterring illegal immigration to the United States and denounced “anti-immigrant” rhetoric that he said is rising in the country’s two major political parties.

Seitz, who chairs the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), commented on the Lone Star State’s new law during an immigration conference jointly hosted by the Catholic University of America and the USCCB. The April 11 event was titled “Responding to Changing Realities at the U.S. Border and Beyond.”

SB 4, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in December 2023, makes illegal border crossing a state crime and allows state police to arrest people who enter the United States illegally through Texas. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has sued the state over the law based on allegations that it usurps the federal government’s authority to enforce laws related to immigration. 

“We’re concerned that this leads to profiling — racial profiling as well,” Seitz said. “It puts fear into every immigrant no matter what their immigration status may be.”

The bishop questioned the constitutionality of the law and how it could be effective without the cooperation of Mexican authorities. He further argued that the law threatens the right to seek asylum by denying the “opportunity to be processed … to see if their claims to asylum are legitimate or not.” 

“[We] hope and pray the courts will not cave to the political pressure,” Seitz said.

During his discussion at the conference, the bishop was critical of “anti-immigrant” rhetoric and approaches to policy, which he said now exists in “both parties.” He claimed the media has “misrepresented” the situation at the border, which he said has also stoked anti-immigrant sentiment.

“You’re not going to see chaos [at the border],” Seitz said. “You’re going to see lots of fences and wires and things like that.”

The bishop, who works with migrants and hosts a shelter on his property in the diocese, spoke positively of the individuals with whom he has interacted. 

“I meet these people every day,” Seitz said. “They’re some of the most peaceful, patient family-oriented people I’ve ever met.”

Speaking to CNA following his remarks at the conference, Seitz said the Catholic Church provides a “beautiful balance” for ensuring the dignity of migrants is respected and that countries can maintain their borders. 

“The Church says nations have a right to a border and they have a right and a responsibility to control their border,” the bishop explained. “So we don’t have a problem with that.” 

Seitz said, however, that the answer cannot be “to close off the possibility of a legitimate flow across the border.” 

“People have a right to migrate when there is a need,” the bishop added. 

Other speakers at the conference echoed similar concerns about policy and rhetoric. 

Father David Hollenbach, a Jesuit priest and research professor at Georgetown University, cited messages in Scripture about welcoming strangers and argued that the United States has a moral obligation to assist migrants and refugees because the country has the capacity to help in a way that poorer countries do not. 

“These people are created in the image and likeness of God,” Hollenbach said during a panel discussion. 

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Another speaker, Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, executive director of the Newcomer Network at the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., branch of Catholic Charities USA, said during a panel discussion that politicians are “using immigrants as political footballs.” 

Although Wagner acknowledged that some local communities have “unanticipated costs” when dealing with the influx of migrants, she said most are of prime working age and desire to work. 

“This is an investment that will pay off,” Wagner said.

Although the conference focused mostly on an obligation to assist migrants in coming to the country, some Catholics have expressed a more cautious approach to the influx of people who have entered the country between official ports of entry.

Chad Pecknold, a professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, who was not a part of the conference, told CNA that the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on immigration provide “a sound and reasonable guide for these discussions.” 

Referencing Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae,” Pecknold recalled that the doctor of the Church “teaches that while hospitality should be offered to the wayfarer passing through, political communities must ensure that those ‘entering to remain’ demonstrate a commitment to the customs, language, religion, and mores of their commonweal.” 

“Every human being having dignity does not immediately and obviously supersede the sovereignty of nations,” Pecknold added. “Statesmen have a sacred duty to safeguard the political common good of their country, and this will sometimes mean restricting who can legally enter and remain in their countries,” he noted.

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