Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle, is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration. As the Obama administration and local law enforcement sought to address the growing humanitarian crisis posed by an unprecedented surge in undocumented minors crossing the border, Bishop Elizondo addressed the July 7-10 National Migration Conference in Washington, sponsored by the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. and Catholic Charities USA.

The conference addressed a host of issues, from the desperate plight of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence of a brutal civil war to the scourge of sexual and labor trafficking and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. 

During an interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Bishop Elizondo discussed the U.S. bishops’ efforts to address these problems, and he explained why migrant children were streaming into the country and called on Catholics to help them.

At the start of the National Migration Conference, which focused on outreach to refugees, trafficking victims and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors, you stated, “Our mission as Church is to defend the rights of the migrant, no matter what the political situation or polls may dictate.” What did you hope to accomplish with the conference?

Our goal was to raise awareness about the urgent issues we are facing, from the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees to the critical need to reform our immigration system.

Our broken immigration system is not working in a humane way. Thousands of people want to come to our country, and the system does not make it possible for them to apply, in a reasonable, timely way, for a temporary visa or a work visa. Many lack the financial ability to apply for legal status, and that is why they cross the border.

The civil war in Syria has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, with many crossing into neighboring countries. The USCCB has urged the Obama administration to provide humanitarian assistance and to allow more Syrian refugees to rebuild their lives in this country. Can you provide an update?

Thousands of Syrians have applied to come here, and many more need our assistance in refugee camps. The U.S. has been a beacon and a leader in offering assistance to people in this kind of crisis, and the administration is open to receiving more refugees, but it is concerned about the economic situation in this country and finding funds available [for refugee resettlement]. It is too early to say how many refugees might be accepted, but the U.S. government is working with neighboring countries, like Lebanon, which have already welcomed many of them.

In 2011, the Obama administration did not approve new federal grants for the USCCB’s top-rated program that assisted trafficking victims because the program did not include abortion and contraceptive services. Has the USCCB program found other ways to offer help and raise awareness?

We have been working with evangelical groups to help trafficking victims and to educate people about the problem of trafficking. Wherever there is turmoil, gangs and drug violence, there is the danger that young people will be trafficked.

We also have joined with conferences of bishops and governments [in Mexico and Central America] to improve awareness and educate people who could be targeted by the traffickers or who could unwittingly facilitate the trafficking of others. The message to young people is to stay in school, and then they will be less likely to get into trafficking.

In a January 2014 report, the USCCB warned that gang violence and poverty would lead an estimated 60,000 undocumented minors to leave their homes and cross the U.S. border. In fact, more than 47,000 have arrived since October 2013, and the Obama administration confirmed that false rumors of amnesty for children who make the trip are a key problem. What is going on?

The main reason for the influx of children is misinformation in their home countries in Central America. False information has led them to believe that if they come they will have an opportunity to gain legal status because they are minors.

Some parents have encouraged their children to take the risk, leave their homes and go through the awful experience of fear, famine and physical abuse to receive legal status. In some areas, drug cartels and gangs have threatened to retaliate against kids, forcing them to cooperate. The kids are easy targets, and the parents think it is better to cross the border.

The last time I was in El Salvador and Guatemala, we had a dialogue with local bishops and government ministers to discuss how they can work with the youth so they don’t need to fall into the trap of joining gangs.

On July 7, President Obama warned that most young migrants will be deported after they arrive in the U.S. How can Church leaders here and in Latin America reach out to minors who will be returned to their home countries and give them hope?

If more opportunities are available in their own countries, they will not be forced to migrate. We can work through the conferences of bishops [in Central America] to invite entrepreneurs to invest in the people of their own countries in order to provide more opportunities for safe employment and fair wages. 

In this country, we can help the undocumented minors who have already arrived. Some U.S. dioceses, especially those near the southern border, already provide services for the undocumented children, even opening church facilities.

In places like El Paso and San Antonio [Texas], Catholic organizations try be a welcoming face for kids who are traumatized and abused by traffickers. The Catholic Church has offered food, clothing and other services. But we are overwhelmed, and so we have to rely on government-funded services.

The government’s answer is to put many children in military installations. I understand that the government does not have other ways right now to address this humanitarian crisis, but if they [administrators] were open to help from the Church and Catholic organizations, the children would receive more welcoming treatment.

We can offer to contact their families — many families are not contacted because the kids themselves are afraid of giving information. Possibly, we can help them seek legal asylum status, if they qualify. We need to consider they are fleeing their countries because of violence. They are not just migrants, but refugees.

The USCCB backed President Obama’s 2012 executive order calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came here as children and participated in programs that help children apply for asylum status and remain in the U.S. Now, critics charge that such polices encourage children to cross the border, and border security must take precedence. Your thoughts?

When I and other faith leaders met with the president last November, he said he was accountable to the American people to protect the border and the well-being of every U.S. citizen. And I agree with that.

But the Border Patrol should stop drug traffickers and not target simple people trying to cross the border to work. Building a higher fence is not the answer, and putting more officers on the ground to chase these poor people is not the answer.

We have to reform the laws so that people who come to work have a feasible way to participate in the legal process, according to their needs and capacity. Otherwise, they will be obligated to break the law.

Does a broken immigration system justify the breaking of U.S. laws?

I am talking about people who are already here and have taken the risk of crossing the desert. We all respect and honor the sovereignty of every country and its laws, and we are not encouraging people to break them; but the current system is not accessible to take the immense majority of poor immigrants in immediate need.   

Recently, when the government transported immigration detainees from Texas to a facility in a California town, local protestors forced the government buses to turn back. The protests shocked many people, but they underscore fears that the new arrivals will overwhelm local services.

I know it is a complex situation. But we are a rich country that was built, formed and developed by immigrants. We could do much more than we are doing now.

As a Catholic bishop, I say that it is never too much to offer help to a brother or sister in dire and immediate need. In the Gospel, Jesus says that, at the Final Judgment, each of us will be asked to give an accounting of his or her service to others. “When I was sick, you visited me ... a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

They may not all stay here, but they will not be immediately deported, and we want to make sure that they don’t fall into the hands of those who endanger their lives back home.

And if we are welcoming, those who are sent home will know it was because of the immigration process and not because they did not find a friendly heart.