PLEASE NOTE: After this column was published, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allows children to stay with parents caught crossing the border illegally. This measure will hopefully stop the family separations that led me to write this column. I pray that by the time you are reading this piece, legislation will have been passed to address this situation on a more permanent basis.
Recent attention in local media has been given to the joyful news of the ordination of four men as priests for service in our diocese, and, on the other hand, to the tragic story of past clergy abuse of minors. While we rejoice with our new priests, and share the sadness and anger of abuse victims - while continuing our commitment a to safe environment for our young people - we must not lose sight of other important matters that call out to our consciences.
For some time now, the Catholic bishops of the United States have been advocating vigorously for legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers, keep families together at the U.S./Mexico border, and ensure asylum - especially for women fleeing domestic violence in their home countries. In fact, a major focus of the agenda at our recent biannual USCCB plenary assembly was on these matters of deep concern.
The bishops continue to support the Dream Act, as it offers the most protection to Dreamers - the 1.8 million undocumented young adults brought to the U.S. illegally as children and now studying in college, contributing to our economy, and serving in our military. These future doctors, teachers, first responders and even Catholic priests have had to live with uncertainty for too long. For a time, DACA the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program established in 2012 - allowed illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who met strict criteria (e.g., came to the U.S. before age 16, currently in school, graduated or honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. military, and no felony or significant misdemeanor conviction) to be considered for temporary legal status with authorization. The current administration ended DACA on Sept. 5, 2017 while allowing one-time renewal for those whose status was set to expire between Sept. 5 and March 5, 2018. We know that Congress could provide permanent protection to Dreamers through legislation designed to offer them a path to citizenship. Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, the chairman of the Committee on Migration, spoke eloquently on the matter:
"These young people have steadfastly worked to improve themselves and our country and attempted in good faith to comply with the law as it stood. As a nation, we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to Dreamers. We stand ready to work with the president and with Congress in the coming days to help fashion a just solution that meets their needs, ensures our nation's safety and security, and sets the stage for the larger debate on immigration reform that is so urgently and desperately needed."
While fingers can be pointed at both congress and the administration for the dysfunctionality of our current immigration system, perhaps the more fundamental problem is, as one bishop memorably remarked at our recent meeting, that we Americans are becoming "cardiosclerotic" - hard-hearted - to have allowed the plight of these immigrants to remain so dire for so long. As American Catholics, we must stand in solidarity with these young people and their families who worship with us in our parishes and are hardworking, enterprising and law abiding members of our communities. Border security, an important concern, can surely be achieved without surrendering humanitarian - and Catholic - principles.
The current plight of families enduring forced separation at the U.S./Mexico border is also deeply troubling. At the end of the Obama administration and into the Trump administration, separation of families at the border has significantly increased. The Department of Homeland Security recently confirmed that from April 19 through May 31 of this year, 1,995 minors were separated from their guardians at the border. That's roughly 45 children a day over this six-week period!
There are many reasons why forcible separation of families is a problem, e.g., it will be costly to U.S. taxpayers. But the largest issue here is moral. Children are vulnerable and should not be separated from their parents. Family unity is a foundational element of Catholic teaching. It must also be a cornerstone of our U.S. immigration system. Separating families, except when there are concerns about abuse or trafficking, is contrary to basic child welfare principles and inimical to Catholic moral values. As Pope Francis reminds us, "Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself."
Attorney General Sessions' recent decision to bar asylum for vulnerable women who lack protection from domestic violence against in their home countries is extremely concerning. This decision, negating decades of precedents that have provided protection, could result in these women having to return to extreme dangers of violence in their home countries.
As I write these words, I am praying that by the time you are reading about these concerns, legislation will have been passed to change these perilous situations.
The issues I have all too briefly noted here are admittedly complex. As Vatican II teaches in "Gaudium et Spes", Catholics must "scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel." Do all you can to learn about these issues facing our nation and our communities. Study them through the lenses of sacred scripture and Catholic social teaching. And then ... act.