This is what appears in Saint Remy Bulletin this Sunday.
What is all this talk about immigration and families? In recent weeks, there’s been a furious back-and-forth in the media and in Washington about what the government is doing at the borders, and how this affects families with minor children. I’ve seen a lot of yelling, not a lot of clarity. So last week, I tried to dig into this to understand better, particularly as our U.S. bishops have weighed in. This won’t be an expert explanation. But here’s what I think is going on.
Millions of people come to our country every year, both legally and illegally. Most who enter illegally are seeking nothing more than a better life, but some are engaged in crime or even terrorism. The task of our government in sorting out the honest and dishonest isn’t easy; and virtually everyone admits that we as a nation need a better handle on these issues. Politicians of both parties have been promising to address the problems of illegal immigration for decades, but without consensus.
When people attempt to enter this country illegally, several things can happen. If they are met right at the border, they are turned back. But if they are found already inside the country, then that is a violation of the law. In addition, they may be found to have broken other laws as well. At this point, they are either arrested and prosecuted, as anyone else would be, or else they are sent out of the country again. In all this, some will need food and medical attention, and I’m very confident they get it. Some of these folks will ask for asylum in the U.S., which our laws will grant under various conditions. When such a request is made, there is a legal process for determining whether that person qualifies for asylum.
Here’s the first hitch: the border control agents who deal with these issues have their hands full, as do the judges who have to decide these requests; so there are waiting periods until these things can be decided. So what happens to the illegal aliens requesting asylum? Really only two things can happen: they can either be held in custody, or else they can be released on their honor, and told to report on such-and-such a date for their court hearing. It should be obvious what the problems with either approach are. If you go back 30 years or so, you’ll find both approaches tried by both Democrats and Republicans. At the moment, President Trump has opted not to release such asylum-seekers, but rather to hold them in custody.
Here’s the second hitch: sometimes – many times? – these individuals come with underage children. Maybe they are their own children, or maybe they aren’t. Again, this presents the border control agents with many issues. They have to know whether the children are actually with their own relatives, and whether there is anything improper going on. But assuming they’ve answered these questions, then the issue is, do they take the children into custody as well? Or do they only take into custody the adults? Or do they just let the folks go free? This is what the current dispute is about. (Update: as this bulletin went to press, the President signed an order aiming to prevent family separations; but this isn’t over.)
If the government only takes the adults into custody, then the children have to go elsewhere; perhaps into foster care, or perhaps with relatives. But obviously, this means separation from their parents, and we can all imagine how frightening this is.
Here’s what our bishops have said. Let me quote a June 13 statement from Houston Archbishop Daniel DiNardo, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General's recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection. These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country. This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors. We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.
Additionally, I join Bishop Joe Vásquez, Chairman of USCCB's Committee on Migration, in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the Administration's zero tolerance policy. Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."
Of course, the bishops know there are many responses to their concerns. Every year, many thousands of adults who have minor children are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for various crimes; and this, too, results in “family separation.” My guess is that Archbishop DiNardo would say that he wants to minimize that as well. And then, most people would distinguish between someone who is incarcerated for a theft or a violent crime, versus people who are fleeing desperate situations, even if they do enter this country illegally in the process.
Others are saying, but shouldn’t the bishops simply be happy that this administration is doing many positive things on pro-life and religious freedom? My guess is that the bishops are, indeed, happy; but that doesn’t mean they remind silent when they have concerns. Nor should any of us.
Archbishop DiNardo and Bishop Vasquez, among others, are trying to give voice to varied points of view among their fellow bishops, and among many Catholics. I think the bishops are trying to be a voice for the right balance between border security and compassion for people who are seeking a better life.