US Catholics Clash on Border Surge, Immigration

A front-line priest who has been serving migrants for the last eight years says what’s needed are ‘open hearts’ and some legislative reforms, but not necessarily ‘open borders.’

South American immigrants arriving illegally from Mexico disembark from an inflatable boat on the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande river at the border city of Roma on March 28, 2021.
South American immigrants arriving illegally from Mexico disembark from an inflatable boat on the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande river at the border city of Roma on March 28, 2021. (photo: Ed Jones / AFP/Getty)

Scalabrini Father Pat Murphy was talking to a reporter by telephone a few days ago when he got a text message in Spanish: “Is the border open?” He gets a lot of those queries.

“No” is the correct answer. But that’s not the message many got.

On Feb. 16, the Biden administration announced it would process existing applications for asylum from migrants that had gotten slow action from the Trump administration. Yet something got lost in translation for many people in gang-ridden southern Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, including thousands who have trekked north in recent weeks looking to get into the United States.

“The only thing people heard in the south is ‘The border’s open,’” said Father Murphy, of the  Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, who runs a shelter called Casa del Migrante, in Tijuana, a Mexican city just south of the border with California. “And it’s only open for a select group of people, people who’ve been waiting for a couple of years.”

Currently, about 80 people are staying there, because of social distancing. (Pre-virus, it was 150 people.) They are given 45 days to find a job and a place to live and then asked to leave to make room for someone else. There are about 30 shelters in Tijuana, Father Murphy said, but they can’t accommodate the thousands who have come.

About 1,200 miles to the southeast, in the border city of McAllen, Texas, between 300 and 700 migrants a night come through the Humanitarian Respite Center, a former shopping center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. These migrants, having already passed the first step of the asylum process, get a shower, a place to sleep, toothpaste, toothbrushes, new shoes and a backpack on their way to the interior of the United States and an eventual date with an immigration judge.

The surge at the border is partly seasonal, since late-winter and early-spring weather is the best time to travel. Migrants leave because of gang violence, poor economic conditions, and damage and disruption from recent hurricanes.


The Immigration Divide

The surge at the border has refocused attention on immigration, which divides U.S. citizens in general and Catholics in particular, as a January 2019 Public Religion Research Institute poll found. The poll reported stark distinctions along party lines, which reflects the rhetoric in Washington. Democrats call Republicans cruel and racist for wanting to decrease immigration. Republicans say Democrats are trying to import future voters who will guarantee election victories down the road and that they’re willing to hurt the country in the process.

The rhetoric isn’t always as sharp among Catholics who disagree on immigration, but the feelings run deep.

During the past week, the Register asked several immigration experts with divergent views: What is a proper Catholic response?

The context is Church teachings, which set forth moral principles on immigration but aren’t always clear-cut on how to implement them.

Pope Pius XII, writing in Exsul Familia about post-World War II migration in 1952, called Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who fled King Herod’s murderous rampage in Bethlehem to Egypt, “the archetype of every refugee family,” and he endorsed what he called “the right of people to migrate.” More recently, Pope Francis has called for responding to migrants with four verbs: “welcome, protect, promote and integrate.”

Yet Catholic social teaching also acknowledges that a country has, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it, “the right to regulate its borders to control immigration … for the common good.”

“While individuals have the right to move in search of a safe and humane life, no country is bound to accept all those who wish to resettle there,” the bishops’ conference says in a document titled, “Catholic Social Teaching and the Movement of Peoples.”

A recent Gallup poll found that 42 million who live in Latin America and the Caribbean would move to the United States if they could. In June 2017, Gallup found that 147 million people worldwide would move to the United States if they could.


Making Sound Judgments

From a Catholic perspective, where do you draw the line?

Or do you?

For Bishop Daniel Flores, whose south Texas Diocese of Brownsville includes McAllen, where asylum-seekers are flocking, the immediate answer is trying to help the people in front of him who are in need.

“The Church’s role — and I consider it to be the Church’s primary responsibility here in the valley — is to address the human situation on the front line, even before we talk about the political reality. We have a duty to treat people with dignity and respect,” Bishop Flores said in a telephone interview with the Register.

Supporters and skeptics of immigration agree that the U.S. government should do more to help governments in northern Central America stabilize their societies so people don’t feel as though they have to leave. They say more immigration judges should be sent to the border to hear asylum cases more quickly.

But they disagree on whether poverty or fear of gangs should be grounds to gain entry into the United States, whether the government should grant legal status to immigrants who are already in the country illegally, and whether the government should admit more or fewer immigrants than it does now.

They also disagree on how the current system should work.

Would-be immigrants to the United States can’t just show up at the border and ask to come in. They have to make a case that they qualify for asylum under federal law “because of … a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Asylum-seekers are first interviewed by a federal official as part of what the government calls a “credible fear review.” About 83% make it to a second step, which culminates in a hearing before an immigration judge. Only about 17% of those cases are approved, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.


Competing Arguments

Immigration supporters say the United States should be more generous to people who need help.

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank that supports immigrants and immigration, wrote an essay published March 17 criticizing the immigration policies of the Trump administration — “which made cruelty a pillar of its strategies,” he wrote.

Kerwin objects to the “Remain In Mexico” policy of the Trump administration — known as Migrant Protection Protocols — in which migrants claiming asylum were not allowed to make their case in the United States. Kerwin said the policy — which the Biden administration is changing — violated U.S. law, treated migrants badly, and didn’t even work on its own terms, since border arrests spiked in 2019 while the policy was in full effect.

He also objected to the Trump administration’s dismantling of an Obama-era program that offered at-risk minors in Central America a chance to apply in their own country for entry into the United States.

“From a Catholic perspective, it’s a no-brainer. I think what the current administration is saying is you need smart programs like that in place,” Kerwin said in a telephone interview. “And just to be clear, those are children that are deemed to be at risk and able to join their parents who were legally in the country. Why kill a program like that?”

Immigration skeptics argue that inviting migrants hurts them because of the dangerous and degrading journey they make through areas controlled by drug cartels and gangs, putting them at risk for sex trafficking and other horrors. They also say the current asylum application system in the United States often masks pure economic migration, which they argue is more cruel than kind.

One of those is Art Arthur, a former immigration judge who went to a Jesuit high school and is a volunteer in his Catholic parish outside Baltimore. He is the resident fellow in law and policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration-restrictionist think tank that calls for a “pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.”

Arthur said encouraging economic migration is bad for poor people already in the United States, who must compete for jobs with low-skilled immigrants, which he said makes it harder to get a job and depresses wages.

“When they come to this country, they are in direct competition with the most gift-disadvantaged people in this country,” Arthur told the Register in a telephone interview. “That illegal entry makes life cheaper and better for well-off people. It doesn’t help people who are lower on the socioeconomic spectrum.”

As an immigration judge in York, Pennsylvania, from 2006 to 2015, Arthur ruled mostly on cases of people who had been detained on charges of committing crimes, which he says accounts for his high denial rate of claims for asylum — more than 90% during one five-year period, or eighth highest in the country, according to a tracking study from Syracuse University. Some other applicants, he says, also failed to state a claim for asylum recognized by the law or did not provide credible evidence for such a claim.

But he said he believes in asylum. He called Americans “a very open, warm and giving people” and said the country should stay that way.

“We need to maintain the United States as a beacon of hope for people. We need to limit the number of people who are coming to this country for economic reasons. We need to grant asylum to those people who truly need it, and we need to do it in a timely fashion,” Arthur said. 

Kerwin, who used to run an immigration subsidiary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, doesn’t see immigrants as economic competitors of other poor people. Confident that he’s standing with the Gospels and the bishops, Kerwin looks at his fellow churchgoers who want to further restrict immigration and shakes his head.

“Catholic advocates and service providers who work with immigrants, we feel like we’re kind of abandoned by a lot of Catholics on these issues, who we feel don’t approach these issues from a Catholic perspective,” Kerwin said in a telephone interview. “The work is hard. It’s particularly stinging to have Catholics attack you, especially when you’re on all fours with Catholic social teaching.”


No Simple Solutions

Catholic skeptics of immigration say immigration policy requires what the Church calls prudential judgment, and they question the prudence of immigration supporters.

“I don’t think there is one definitively Catholic response to a situation like this. But a devout Catholic policymaker would be looking for the policy response that creates the least harm and ensures that migrants are treated with dignity, even if they are subject to enforcement of our laws,” said Jessica Vaughan, a Catholic and the director of policy studies for the pro-low-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, by email. 

“A faithful Catholic would consider the reasons for the laws — to protect Americans, to preserve opportunity for all Americans, to avoid doing harm to Americans — especially the least fortunate among us,” she said. “We can shelter the homeless, give drink to the thirsty, aid to the sick, clothe the naked, et cetera, without necessarily resettling all the world’s needy within our borders.”

The two clerics interviewed for this story, Bishop Flores in Brownsville and Father Murphy in Tijuana, both acknowledge that calibrating immigration policy is complicated.

Bishop Flores said policymakers should err on the side of charity — what might be thought of as a preferential option for the immigrant.

“A country is entitled to its borders and an orderly system of crossing. However, that’s not an absolute,” Bishop Flores said. “It’s coupled with the government of the country that has its borders to be generous to the family that is trying to find safety.”

For Father Murphy, who has spent the last eight years helping migrants, the answer is love. 

“So I just ask people to look into their hearts. I really ask: What can we do to help our brothers and sisters? Obviously we need some laws to be changed,” Father Murphy said. “I’m not saying open borders, but we need open hearts.”

Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post.