St. Louis — Holding immigrant families at detention centers is a violation of international law and “a stain” on the U.S. administration, a bishop said at the annual spring gathering of U.S. bishops.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., made the comments during the Wednesday afternoon session of the June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held this year in St. Louis through Friday. A member of the board of directors of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., or CLINIC, Soto said the group has ramped up efforts to provide free legal representation for mothers and children before the immigration court.
Demand, though, is growing. According to Soto, CLINIC has sought to offer legal screening to all eligible for immigration relief, a pool exceeding 1 million people. The group has also assisted foreign-born religious workers coming to minister in the U.S.; in 2014, it worked with 160 religious organizations and filed more than 750 immigration applications, Soto said.
In May, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals left in place a temporary injunction of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs, which the bishops estimate would help more than 4 million people.
Soto described the bulk of those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as “asylum-seekers” and said their jailing “is a violation of international law and a stain on the administration.
“We are working closely with the Committee on Migration to bring these abuses to light and advocate for just and humane reform for these vulnerable families,” he said.
Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said the Migration Committee he chairs continues the push for reform of the immigration detention system in addition to comprehensive immigration reform. He noted that the latter has stalled in the House of Representatives and that the U.S. bishops supported executive actions by the Obama administration, itself currently tied up in the courts, to provide deferred deportation and work authorization to people in the country illegally.
On the detention camps, Elizondo referenced the bishops’ May report that called for alternatives to family detention.
“That is heartbreaking, to see mothers with babies in those centers,” Elizondo said.
He said the committee supports the U.S. Department of State’s in-country processing of children in danger in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which allows them to apply for asylum without having to make the journey to the U.S. border. The committee also advocates a massive increase in the number of Syrian refugees, including religious minorities from Syria and Iraq, accepted into the U.S.: a target of 65,000 of the most vulnerable in the next two years, compared to the 673 resettled since 2011.
Elizondo said he hopes Pope Francis will spotlight immigration reform during his September visit to the U.S., particularly during his Sept. 24 address to Congress.
“I think he’s very passionate about it, and of course I certainly hope that the Holy Father will embrace this issue,” he told media Wednesday afternoon.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said at the afternoon press conference that the pope’s visit “could be a game-changer” on immigration, with the potential to move the issue beyond a political debate toward solutions.
Elizondo told NCR that Catholics can play a part in raising awareness of an issue that has flown under the radar in recent months, particularly the issues at the detention centers. The auxiliary bishop called efforts to muffle such conversation a way to discourage and deter actions to make it more difficult for families to reunite.
“I think it’s awful, to be honest. It’s immoral and I think we should keep barking and raising awareness about that,” he said.