A recent court filing claims that some migrant families were temporarily separated at the southern border of the United States this summer, a practice once condemned as “abhorrent” by President Joe Biden. Our Catholic faith prompts us to speak out about this issue, and it is our moral duty to raise our voices against the separation of children from their parents at the border.
Dr. Paul Wise, a pediatrician tasked with monitoring the conditions of migrant children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, has reported that children have been separated from their parents during the Biden administration’s tenure. According to the administration, these separations were primarily driven by the need to alleviate overcrowding in short-term holding facilities. Wise observed the separations during his recent visits to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection tent facility in Donna, Texas, on Aug. 11 and Aug. 30.
While the intent behind these separations may have been to alleviate overcrowding, we cannot overlook the potential lasting harm inflicted upon these innocent children. Wise found that there were minimal or no opportunities for phone contact or direct interaction between parents and children during these separations. This lack of connection and the separation from their families can cause significant and, in some cases, enduring trauma, particularly in younger children.
Separation of families is ‘unconscionable’
Of particular concern is the fact that children were found to be much younger than in previous instances of separation. Shockingly, in some cases this summer, children younger than eight years old were affected. Border Patrol agents would transfer these children to pods with other minors for three to four days when the family holding areas were overcrowded.
The exact number of migrant families affected by separation during Biden’s presidency remains unclear, but these reports confirm that this practice continues, despite the president’s criticism of such policies under the Trump administration. In the past, President Biden has strongly condemned the practice of separating families, calling it “unconscionable.”
We acknowledge the complexity of immigration issues and the challenges posed by overcrowded facilities at the border. More than 7,000 migrants are encountered by federal authorities daily. The current situation is unsafe and unsustainable. However, separating children from their parents should never be an acceptable solution. Our Catholic faith teaches us to uphold the sanctity of family life. The family unit is the core unit of society and must be protected with particular vigilance.
In 2018, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, Most Reverend Joe S. Vásquez, bishop of Austin, wrote: “Forcibly separating children from their mothers and fathers is ineffective to the goals of deterrence and safety and contrary to our Catholic values. Family unity is a cornerstone of our American immigration system and a foundational element of Catholic teaching.” While we must address border security and immigration reform, it should never come at the expense of vulnerable children and the unity of families.
Prayer and action
In 2017-18, the Trump administration systematically separated more than 5,000 migrant children from their parents in hopes of deterring families from illegally entering the United States. Pope Francis strongly condemned the practice. “It’s cruelty, and separating kids from parents goes against natural rights,” the pope said. “It’s something a Christian cannot do. It’s cruelty of the highest form.”
Threats to public safety in overcrowded, underregulated border facilities are real. We urge continued vigilance against drug and human trafficking and potential terrorism, for the wellbeing of all in our nation. But the enforcement measures against even these threats must be focused, commensurate and compassionate. We believe that the U.S. government has the right to intercept unauthorized migrants who attempt to enter the United States illegally. However, the separation of families who have been detained is unacceptable, whether proposed as a deterrent or to alleviate overcrowded facilities.
Under our current immigration system, family reunification may take years. Laws that promote the integrity of family life can help ensure families remain intact and counter the threat of family breakdown.
Our faith impels us to advocate for policies that promote family reunification, safeguard children’s well-being and address the root causes of migration. We urge our fellow Catholics and all people of goodwill to join us in prayer and action to protect the sanctity of families and ensure that the treatment of those seeking refuge reflects the mercy and compassion taught by Jesus Christ in the Gospels.