Stop the Cruelty at the Border

The authority of nations to secure their borders and to regulate migration is undisputed as a matter both of civil and natural law. The Church’s social teaching has long affirmed that. This is a difficult area for governments, which have to balance many legal, moral and policy considerations. Some deference has to be given to the expertise and presumed good faith of governments as they work in this area.

But our government’s exercise of this power has now passed the bounds of decency and has descended into cruelty. We cannot stand by and allow this to continue.

The present Administration’s hostility to immigration is well-known to all. The unconstitutional travel bans, the unjustifiable limitations on refugees from certain countries, and the ignorant and nasty rhetoric about immigrants are also all well-known.

But things have become even worse than that, and they’re getting worse all the time. Beginning last year, the Administration began a policy of separating children from their parents when families cross the border either as undocumented migrants or when seeking asylum. Hundreds of children, some as young as infants, were taken from their parents without any legal due process, and moved to facilities far from where their parents were being held. Communication between parents and children were either not permitted or greatly delayed. The psychological impact on these young children is certain to be severe.

That injustice was bad enough. But in May, the Administration announced that the government would now prosecute all persons who cross the border with Mexico. Together with that, any parents would be assumed to be smuggling their child, who would be forcibly taken away without any judicial due process.  Even people who are seeking asylum from persecution and violence would be treated as common criminals and their children would be taken.

Crossing the border without authorization is illegal. But this policy is specifically designed to use the threat of loss of children to deter parents from coming across the border. In essence, our government has decided to use children as human shields against illegal immigration. That is not legitimate law enforcement, that is cruelty.

The callous way in which high government officials spoke about this situation shocks the conscience. The White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spoke dismissively about these immigrants as being poorly educated, overwhelmingly rural, and without skills — as if human dignity depended on those factors, and as if generations of prior immigrants were any different. Mr. Kelly then said, “a big name of the game is deterrence… The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Hundreds of children, taken from their parents in a strange foreign nation and placed in group facilities or the homes of strangers — “whatever”.

But it gets even worse. The Attorney General, who oversees immigration enforcement, has issued a policy decision that domestic violence and gang violence will no longer be a ground for seeking asylum in the United States. This is outrageous. Women and children are subject to violence with impunity in many nations. Domestic violence and gangs are ubiquitous and they frequently go unpunished or are even facilitated by governments.

Our government will now separate mothers from children, incarcerate the mothers, and then send them back to their abusers. This decision overturns decades of humanitarian policies, under which our nation proudly offered protection to these most vulnerable people. This is a disgrace, and unworthy of a civilized nation and of a government that routinely brags about its Christian moral principles.

But it gets even worse. To handle the volume of people who have to be brought before courts as a result of these policies, the government has been holding mass court meetings. This practice began under the prior administration but its use has intensified due to the new policies. I cannot bring myself to call these “proceedings” or “hearings” — they are an appalling mockery of justice. Dozens of criminal defendants are herded into courtrooms, represented by one attorney who had minimal time to speak to the group and virtually none to speak to individuals, and then all plead guilty at once before a magistrate who is being held to a monthly quota of guilty pleas.

The Church has repeatedly raised her voice against these policies. Testimony has been given before Congress. The USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants Project has an action alert that everyone should use to contact Congress about it.

Yesterday, Cardinal DiNardo, the president of USCCB, issued a statement on behalf of all the bishops of the United States. It is worth quoting in full (emphasis mine):

“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.

There are lots of legitimate issues surrounding immigration that are worthy of debate. But this is not one of them. Our bishops have called us out — they have told us that our government is doing something that is immoral and that violates the fundamental right to life. We cannot stand idly by, no matter what we think about other immigration issues.

These policies are cruel and shameful and they must end.

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