3 Things U.S. Catholic Bishops Can Do About Family Separation and Incarceration at the Border

Commentary
By Rose Marie Berger 6-21-2018
Salvadoran migrant Epigmenio Centeno and his sons enter the shelter House of the Migrant, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

At the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week, Tucson Bishop Edward Weisenburger asked for guidance on how “border bishops” should respond to the Department of Homeland Security policies that separate immigrant children and parents.

Provocatively, Weisenburger asked if “canonical penalties”— such as withholding the sacraments — should be considered for Catholics implementing the family separation policy. Additionally, Lexington (Ky.) Bishop John Stowe said he has spoken with people who work for the Border Patrol who are “struggling in their own consciences with how do they carry out these unjust policies.”

In this violent crisis, not significantly mitigated by President Trump’s recent executive order, every Catholic bishop becomes a “border bishop.” The tools of active nonviolence offer a way forward. In the first World Day of Peace message, Blessed Pope Paul VI said, “Peace is the only true direction of human progress — and not the tensions caused by ambitious nationalisms, nor conquests by violence, nor repressions which serve as mainstay for a false civil order.” He warned of “the danger of believing that international controversies cannot be resolved by the ways of reason, that is, by negotiations founded on law, justice, and equity, but only by means of deterrent and murderous forces.”

The American Catholic bishops have been strong and consistent teachers on the biblical, theological, and moral ethic of “welcoming the stranger among us.” Immigration involves three Catholic principles: First, people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. Second, a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. Third, a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.

Here are three things Catholic bishops can do about family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border:

  1. Humanitarian Crisis: Current “zero tolerance policies” enacted by the attorney general’s office have created a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention system. Advocate for the International Red Cross to take over responsibility for the more than 10,000 detained migrant children with immediate priority of establishing communication and rapid reunification between children and parents.
     
  2. Catholic Conscience, Canonical Correction: Many Catholics who work for U.S. Border and Customs Enforcement and related agencies find themselves in a crisis of conscience regarding the anti-family and anti-life consequences of the current “zero tolerance policies.” Develop clear statements on Catholic conscience to guide Catholics working in agencies implementing family-separation policies. Support “religious freedom exemptions” for all Catholics who cannot comply for reasons of conscience with orders to carry out family-separation policies. Consider the application of canonical corrections to Catholic policy makers, especially in elected or appointed government positions, who publicly advocate in support of family separation policies, in willful disregard of the biblical, theological, and moral ethic.
     
  3. Religious Freedom: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken extraordinary steps to highlight respect for religious liberty at the Justice Department. An Oct. 6, 2017 memorandum from Sessions delineated that “The Department shall not concur in the issuance of any rule that appears to conflict with federal laws governing religious liberty, as set forth in the interpretive guidance.” Open up direct communication with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to determine if the civil rights and religious freedom of Catholics are threatened or compromised by forced implementation of the Department of Homeland Security family-separation policy. Open up direct communication with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a graduate of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, to offer pastoral care and direction to her as she implements these policies.

Currently, Catholic bishops and immigration and refugee agencies are pressuring Congress to take legislative action on family separation and restrict funding to the Department of Homeland Security. These are important steps. However, in this crisis, U.S. Catholic bishops have an opportunity to use the power of their moral authority in a distinctive manner. Coordinated action by the USCCB in these three areas could provide a tipping point toward ending the human trauma at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pope Francis has called for Catholics to lead with active nonviolence as a “style of politics for peace.” All of the actions taken by the bishops, including the three identified above, model nonviolent Catholic witness to policy-makers, implement nonviolent alternatives to the current inhumane “means of deterrent and murderous force,” and promote nonviolent actions for justice by U.S. Border Patrol members and others engaged in the system of family separation.

If migrants and refugees are “pilgrims in search for peace,” as Pope Francis wrote, then Catholic bishops must continue to offer bold leadership through nonviolent actions to defend them and their children. Now is the time for the USCCB to call for an emergency meeting at the U.S.-Mexico border in collaboration with the bishops of Mexico to provide pastoral presence and discern prophetic action.

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Rose Marie Berger is Senior Associate Editor of Sojourners magazine and a contributor to the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.

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