Family separations spark episcopal response

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After being detained and released by law enforcement, immigrants who crossed illegally into the U.S. wait at the Catholic Charities relief center in McAllen, Texas, on April 6. CNS photo via Loren Elliott, Reuters

For years, advocates of immigration reform decried the lack of action on immigration in the United States. In recent months, that stagnation has given way to a deluge of changes, nearly all of them aimed at cutting the number of immigrants, whether they are here legally or not.

Headlines pile upon headlines: a new “zero-tolerance policy” that calls for parents who cross the border before petitioning for asylum to be separated from their children and prosecuted; workplace immigrations raids sweeping up hundreds of workers — many of them parents of U.S.-citizen children — for deportation; the end of temporary protected status for immigrants from Honduras, joining those from Haiti, El Salvador and other countries; Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ June 11 decision that people fleeing domestic and gang violence generally will no longer qualify for asylum; news on June 13 that the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service is digitizing and examining the fingerprints of people naturalized more than two decades to root out those who may not have disclosed prior deportations and strip them of their citizenship.At the same time, President Donald Trump’s administration has slashed the number of refugees admitted to the United States and is working to further limit legal immigration.

The moves — especially the separation of young children from their parents and the rolling back of asylum protections — have drawn stinging condemnation from Catholic bishops in the United States and even rebukes from leaders of other religious denominations.

Bishops respond

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), opened the bishops’ spring general meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on June 13, with a statement excoriating those decisions, and casting them as life issues, not political questions.

On the narrowing of the rules for asylum, Cardinal DiNardo said, “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.”

On the separation of families at the border, the statement said, “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.”

In the discussion that followed, many bishops called for an increase in prayerful protests, and Tucson, Arizona, Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger raised the idea of imposing “canonical penalties” on Catholics who participate in implementing the policies. Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, spoke of the need to provide pastoral support to Catholics who are conflicted conscientiously about such work. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, proposed that the bishops send a delegation to visit detention centers housing children at the border.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, a close collaborator of Pope Francis, offered his own statement, decrying the implementation of a deliberately cruel policy to try to stop people whose lives are in danger from seeking safety in the United States.

“The intent of this policy is clear: to discourage those seeking asylum by severing the most sacred human bond of parent and child,” Cardinal O’Malley wrote. “Children are now being used as a deterrent against immigrants who are appealing to us for asylum in order to protect themselves and their families. As disturbing as this fact is, the narrative of this development makes clear the misguided moral logic of the policy.”

Witnesses to trauma

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy, in a telephone interview after the meeting, said he doesn’t favor imposing penalties such as refusing the Eucharist to any Catholic based on political positions, but said the Church must continue its strong response to moves that turn the Gospel dictate to “welcome the stranger” on its head.

“We have to give a clear, unswerving moral witness to the enormity with which these new policies differ from our tradition as a nation and particularly from the life of the Gospel,” Bishop McElroy said.

In addition, the church must continue to advocate for the people being harmed by the policies, especially the parents and the children who are being forcibly separated, which is “enormously traumatic,” he said. At the same time, “we have to find ways of assisting those who are being victimized by these policies.”

For example, his diocese plans to offer housing to families who enter the United States seeking asylum and are not separated.

The policies have already had deadly results: a Honduran man was found dead in a solitary cell May 13, an apparent suicide victim, after becoming distraught when agents pulled his 3-year-old son away from him and his wife; and a teenage high school student from Des Moines, Iowa, who lost his DACA status after two misdemeanor convictions, was murdered in gang violence in Zacatecas, Mexico, less than a month after being escorted from the United States by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Policy particulars

Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, said the separation of families is supposed to apply only to those who cross the border first and then petition for asylum; those who present themselves at a port of entry and ask for asylum before crossing should not be prosecuted, and their children should remain with them, whether they are admitted or denied entry.

“The policy is to prosecute the adults for crossing the border,” she said. “That means taking them into custody, and if you take them into custody, they can’t have their children with them. We’re making the children into unaccompanied minors.”

However, there have been multiple accounts of families who did present themselves at a port of entry and were still separated.

Feasley said some families were separated at the border under previous administrations, but it was on a case-by-case basis, not as a matter of policy. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

The policy has incalculable human costs, but also very real financial costs. Children who are taken into Customs and Border Patrol custody are to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are to be cared for until an appropriate guardian — usually a relative living in the United States — can be found.

Keeping a child in such care costs the federal government $250 a night, Feasley said. Most of the more than 10,000 children in such care are teenagers who arrived on their own, but on June 15, officials reported that 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults during the period from April 19 to May 31.

At the same time, it costs $85 each night an adult is in the custody of U.S. Marshals, Feasley said.

Then the government must pursue separate immigration cases for each adult and for the children, she said. Siblings’ cases could be heard together or separately.

In the past, when families arrived and asked for asylum, there would be one immigration court case, and the parent or parents would be released, perhaps with an electronic monitor, to care for their children.

Most disturbing, Feasley said, is that there is no set procedure for parents to stay in contact with their children, or to be reunited with their children once they are out of detention, whether they are deported back to their country of origin or allowed to remain in the United States to pursue their case for asylum.

“They can get them back if they can make the connection,” Feasley said. “But there is no mechanism for that to happen.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.