Texas archbishop: The border 'emergency' is not what you think

Crowds turned out for a Town Hall meeting in Los Angeles where Archbishop Jose H Gomez spoke on immigration Jan 14 2014 Courtesy of Victor Aleman vida nuevacom CNA Crowds at a town hall meeting on immigration in Los Angeles, January 2014. Photo courtesy of Victor Aleman/vida-nueva.com

The reputed migration emergency is ultimately not about people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but about caring for the disadvantaged and the difficulties migrants and asylum seekers face in their efforts to reach safety, Archbishop Gustavo-Siller of San Antonio has said.

The archbishop, speaking at a Feb. 27 press conference in El Paso, cited claims that the U.S. is in a national emergency due to border crossings from undocumented immigrants.

"Well, we were at the border yesterday," he said. "The emergency is not here."

"The emergency is what people are going through to try to come here to have peace, to have understanding, to have respect and to have a genuine welcome," said the archbishop. "All the rhetoric that has been building up about how bad the other people are, has built up to this 'national emergency', which is a lie."

While not mentioning President Donald Trump, the archbishop spoke weeks after the president declared a national emergency as part of his efforts to secure funding for a southern border fence. He said there is a "border security and humanitarian crisis" there, claiming that the border is a major entry point for criminals, gang members, and illegal drugs.

The Trump administration has strengthened U.S. deportation efforts and worked to prevent people from claiming asylum from entering the country, citing the low rate of successful asylum claims. The administration's efforts have faced judicial obstacles.

About 70,000 people a year claim asylum after crossing the border without documentation. There are about 1.1 million asylum cases pending in immigration courts, and about 20 percent of applications for asylum are approved, the Associated Press has reported.

For Archbishop Gustavo-Siller, leaders need to unmask the situation at the border and present the truth the way they see it. He rejected the use of the rhetoric of a national emergency to keep people out, emphasizing that people can request political asylum as an international right.

In his experience, the U.S. side of the border does not suffer from an emergency. Rather, there is "loving care" and people who come forward, well organized to meet the needs of border crossers.

When 200 people recently entered the U.S. in search of need, he said, people were ready to serve them.

"The emergency is how we are going to take care of those who are discriminated against, and those who are disadvantaged," said the archbishop.

The group of bishops known as the Tex-Mex Bishops Conference come from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. They have regularly met for 25 years. Migration was a significant focus at the latest gathering in El Paso. Besides their regular meeting, they met in a partnership with the Hope Border Institute, immigration advocates, other advocacy groups, and other faith leaders.

As of Wednesday, they had almost finished a document intended to show solidarity with migrants.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso said every bishop from both sides of the border had attended parts of the latest meeting. He also explained the unique life of the Church and of the community on the border.

"Every border community, contrary to some expectations, is a community that extends across the border, and it goes both ways," he said. "In fact, the very lifeblood of our communities is our connection with our neighbors, with our family across the border.

Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, said the Tex-Mex bishops' gatherings over the decades shows their longstanding commitment "to our border communities, and those who live in them and those who travel through them: asylum seekers and migrants."

The current gathering differed from others because of the additional actions with faith leaders of different traditions.

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"Everyone is concerned about what is going on right now. Right now is a dramatic moment for our country," Corbett said. Leaders of faith are "here to say we stand in solidarity with the migrants."

Corbett cited the recent deaths of two Guatemalan migrant children in the custody of U.S. officials.

"We're here to say 'no more.' Migrants deserve much better and our border communities deserve much better," he said. "We say no to the construction of the wall, we say no to the symbol of hate and division that it is. We say no to the 'turnbacks', the illegal stopping of asylum seekers at ports of entry."

Such a policy if implemented would be a "disaster," resulting in "refugee camps on the other side of the border."

Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville stressed the need to speak with, listen to, and see with open eyes "the experience of the immigrant." These are "people the world often does not have time to talk to."

"We create policies without talking to people who are affected by them," he said.

"It's so important for us as pastors to be in contact with the very concrete experiences of families," he continued. "It is the work of the church to be hospitable," he continued.

Caring for these migrants also has a spiritual aspect, Bishop Flores said.

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"Pope Francis insists to us that we must attend also to the spiritual need of the poor," he said, adding that the worst form of discrimination is "not to announce the good news to the poor." This is part of evangelizing, and the start of evangelizing is "the act of human contact and respect."

The bishops also gathered with advocacy groups and the Catholic faithful for interreligious prayer and witness and a show of solidarity on the U.S.-Mexico border at the Anapra Fence the afternoon of Feb. 26.

Participants in the week's events included Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres Campos of Juarez, the Mexican bishops' national representative on migration programs; Father Robert Stark, a regional coordinator of the Vatican Migrants and Refugees Section; staff representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and leaders with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and Catholic Charities.