Policies of new US administration face Catholic opposition

  • Nizar al-Qassab, an Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul, gets a kiss from his children as they prepare to depart from Beirut international airport Feb. 8 en route to the United States. (CNS/EPA/Mohamed Azakir)
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As the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency ticked past the halfway mark in mid-March, Catholic leaders and activists were finding more points of contention than common ground with the new administration.

Catholics especially have been outspoken in opposition to Trump’s executive orders and policies on immigration and refugees.

On Republican plans to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, Catholics were less vocal, but largely in opposition to the idea that millions would lose their health care coverage.

 

Refugees

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After court challenges blocked the Trump administration’s first executive order on immigration and refugees, a revised order was issued March 6 with the aim of surviving judicial scrutiny.

The new order, which was to take effect March 16, bans travel from five predominantly Muslim nations: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days and from Syria indefinitely. The new order removed Iraq from this list and excludes lawful permanent residents — green card holders — and those already with valid visas from any travel ban.

Refugee admissions will resume after “additional security vetting procedures” are completed, the order says, but it cuts the number of refugee admissions for the 2017 fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30, from 110,000 to 50,000. An estimated 35,000 have already been admitted since October.

The order will further strain the refugee-processing system at its biggest point, says Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international aid agency.

“The bulk of the system and the biggest part of it are those countries like Lebanon, Turkey, which are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees,” O’Keefe said. “When we don’t do our part, it’s tough for us to tell other countries to make the sacrifices we need to play their part. The risk of the system collapsing and of governments that are already strained not being willing to keep their doors open is very serious, and we’re very worried about that.”

In Syria, he added, “some people have been [refugees there] for five, six years. They’ve had the hope of resettlement in the United States as one of the things that keeps them going.”

Local Catholic Charities agencies are scrambling to save staff jobs in refugee resettlement programs. Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, CEO and president of Catholic Charities USA, said up to 700 workers are affected in some way by the order, with many of them losing their jobs. Catholic Charities USA hopes to raise $8 million to save jobs in 80 dioceses nationwide.

“It’s just a mess. If we’re talking about American jobs, this is laying off people in these public-private partnerships,” she told Catholic News Service.

 

Immigration

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich has instructed pastors to bar the door of churches, rectories and Catholic schools to immigration authorities who come knocking without a warrant. That was the message in a Feb. 28 letter to priests offering counsel on how to respond to the recent Trump administration crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

“We need to stand together and clearly make it known that the Archdiocese of Chicago supports the dignity of all persons without regard to immigration status,” Cupich wrote.

Until there is comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress, he urged the priests to “stand in solidarity with those who live in the shadows.” He urged pastoral workers to contact the legal offices of the archdiocese if they are approached by immigration authorities.

His fears have some foundation. While the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, has until now largely spared church facilities from immigration enforcement efforts, there is no legal requirement that it do so. Immigration advocates recently expressed alarm at the arrest of immigrants who had just left a church homeless shelter in Virginia. That incident took place Feb. 8 outside the Rising Hope Mission Church shelter in Alexandria. Six men were taken away by ICE agents at that time.

In Texas, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio was pleading with the government to stop plans that would separate children from mothers in immigration detention centers, a proposal confirmed by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly March 6. Garcia-Siller called it an “unjust and inhumane method of border enforcement.”

On March 10, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., accompanied a 59-year-old grandfather, Catalino Guerrero, who was facing deportation after living in the U.S. for 25 years. Tobin prayed with Guerrero, who was subsequently granted a short-term stay but needs to see immigration officials again in May and still faces deportation.

Catholic colleges and universities have pledged to stand with their immigrant students, signing a letter expressing support for undocumented students at Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities member institutions through “campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal.” 

 

Health care

Calling health care “a vital concern for nearly every person in the country,” the U.S. Catholic bishops said March 8 they will be reviewing closely the American Health Care Act, a measure introduced by Republican leaders March 6 to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. “Given the magnitude and importance of the task before us, we call for a new spirit of cooperation for the sake of the common good,” the bishops wrote.

The main provisions of the new House bill include: eliminating the mandate that individuals have health insurance and putting in its place a new system of tax credits; expanding Health Savings Accounts; repealing Medicaid expansion and transitioning to a “per capita allotment”; prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage or charging more money to patients based on pre-existing conditions; and cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood clinics.

The nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Budget Office said in a report March 13 that if the plan proposed by House Republicans were adopted, 14 million more people would be uninsured in 2018 and 24 million in 2026. Obamacare enabled about 20 million previously uninsured Americans to obtain medical insurance. The Congressional Budget Office projected that if the new bill becomes law, 52 million people total would be uninsured by 2026.

The Catholic Health Association in a March 7 statement said it “strongly opposed” the House repeal and replace measure, saying it “asks the low-income and most vulnerable in our country to bear the brunt of the cuts to our health system.”

The Catholic Health Association joined several other health care provide groups, like the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Children’s Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, and the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems in sending a joint letter to Congress opposing the new health care act.

The proposed legislation, they said, “could lead to tremendous instability for those seeking affordable coverage. Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that the proposed Medicaid program restructuring will result in both the loss of coverage for current enrollees as well as cuts to a program that provides health care services for our most vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and disabled.”

The U.S. bishops meanwhile said, the church “remains committed to the ideals of universal and affordable health care.” Health care is not just another issue, but a “fundamental issue of human life and dignity” and “a critical component of the Catholic Church’s ministry.”

The bishops have advocated for universal and affordable health care for decades and they supported the general goal of the Affordable Care Act, but they ultimately opposed the law because of a contraception mandate and lack of health care provisions for immigrants.

 

Other issues

On other issues, Trump has come through for the religious conservatives who supported his election — 81 percent of white evangelical and born-again Christians, 61 percent of Mormons and 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Trump — but has disappointed that group, too, especially on LGBT issues.

Conservative Christians in particular cheered his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and Trump’s promised “fix” for the Johnson Amendment, which restricts pastors’ ability to politick in the pulpit.

Gorsuch wrote a 2009 book arguing against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and as a judge, he ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based chain of arts and crafts stores, in their challenges to the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

Religious conservatives, however, reacted quite differently when the White House announced Jan. 31 that it would not rescind a 2014 executive order that prohibits federal government contractors from discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” and forbidding “gender identity” discrimination in the employment of federal employees.

The U.S. Catholic bishops called the order “deeply flawed” because “it creates new forms of discrimination against people of faith.” Trump’s retaining it, they said, was “troubling and disappointing.”

Then the State Department announced Feb. 13 it would retain Randy Berry, special envoy for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. The Obama administration created Berry’s position to support efforts abroad to protect gay people from violence.

Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council and a prominent evangelical backer of Trump, called the news “a disappointing development.”

[This article is a compilation of reports from NCR staff, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service.]

This story appeared in the March 24-April 6, 2017 print issue.
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