Special Report: Immigration

Detention Camps

The bishops have spoken out against detention camps for years. In 2015, they released a statement called, Demanding Dignity: the Call to End Family Detention. It said, among other things, 

Family detention goes against the tenets of Catholic social teaching. Detaining young migrant women and their children as a response to their flight from persecution violates human dignity and human rights. To this end, Pope Francis recently stated: “No cell is so isolated as to exclude the Lord, none. He is there . . . His paternal and maternal love reaches everywhere.”Immigrant detention is an explicit concern of the U.S. Catholic bishops, as it was stated in Responsibility Rehabilitation and Restoration, A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice: “We bishops have a long history of supporting the rights of immigrants. The special circumstance of immigrants in detention centers is of particular concern. [The government] uses a variety of methods to detain immigrants some of them clearly inappropriate.” Recently, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote to Secretary Jeh Johnson in opposition to family detention, declaring that “it is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities as if they are criminals.” In addition to being concerned about the idea of family detention generally, the Bishops have spoken explicitly about the need to protect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers such as the women and children currently in immigrant detention facilities. Strangers No Longer: Together on The Journey of Hope, states: “those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

Since 2015, family detention has increased, with children being separated from their parents at the border and kept in detention centers that have conditions many observers have described as deplorable.

On June 26, the bishops once again spoke out on this issue, particularly about the practice of detaining children in inhumane conditions:

The cry of a father and his baby daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande reaches heaven itself. This unspeakable consequence of a failed immigration system, together with growing reports of inhumane conditions for children in the custody of the federal government at the border, shock the conscience and demand immediate action. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, joins Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, in calling on the federal government to hear the cry of the poor and vulnerable.

Their joint statement follows:

“We join with our Holy Father Pope Francis in immense sadness, having seen the horrific images of Oscar Martinez and his daughter Angie Valeria who drowned in the Rio Grande Valley while attempting to flee persecution and enter the United States. This image cries to heaven for justice. This image silences politics. Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis? Sadly, this picture shows the daily plight of our brothers and sisters. Not only does their cry reach heaven. It reaches us. And it must now reach our federal government.

All people, regardless of their country of origin or legal status, are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect. Recent reports of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions are appalling and unacceptable for any person in U.S. custody, but particularly for children, who are uniquely vulnerable. Such conditions cannot be used as tools of deterrence. We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution, and acute poverty.

Congress has a duty to provide additional funding to address the needs of children in federal custody. Their supplemental appropriations bill should also increase protections for immigrant children, including heightened standards and oversight for border facilities.  It is possible and necessary to care for the safety of migrant children and the security of our citizens. By putting aside partisan interests, a nation as great as ours is able to do both.”

Mexico and the Wall

Throughout his campaign and presidency, President Trump has committed to building a wall on the border of Mexico and the United States. Bishops from both Mexico and the Unites States have spoken in opposition to the construction of a wall:

Bishop Joe Vasquez, Chair of the Committee of Migration and Bishop of the Diocese of Austin, stated: 
“I am disheartened that the President has prioritized building a wall on our border with Mexico. This action will put immigrant lives needlessly in harm’s way. Construction of such a wall will only make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers. Additionally, the construction of such a wall destabilizes the many vibrant and beautifully interconnected communities that live peacefully along the border. Instead of building walls, at this time, my brother bishops and I will continue to follow the example of Pope Francis. We will ‘look to build bridges between people, bridges that allow us to break down the walls of exclusion and exploitation.’”

While the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has slowed in recent years, the number of persons crossing the southwestern border of the U.S. from Central America is on the rise. Most are fleeing extreme poverty and rampant gang violence. The number of illegal immigrants resident in the U.S. has fallen below 11 million, its lowest number since 2003. 

From Pope Francis

A widely-reported quote from Pope Francis that “you cannot call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee” was part of a speech the pope gave in October 2016, in which he spoke about the general attitude toward immigrants and refugees:

“The contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions.”

“This is not something I’ve read in books, but I see in the newspapers and on television every day.”

“The sickness or, you can say the sin, that Jesus condemns most is hypocrisy, which is precisely what is happening when someone claims to be a Christian but does not live according to the teaching of Christ. You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,”

“You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.”

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help.”

Enforcement, By the Numbers

From October 2018 to June 2019, the Border Patrol 

- apprehended 56,278 unaccompanied children and 332,981family units on the southwest border.
- 8,194 individuals arrested at ports of entry were classified as criminal aliens.
- 396,579 individuals were stopped from entry at ports.

Historical Perspective? Remembering Operation Pedro Pan

In the early 1960s, parents in Cuba chose to send their unaccompanied children to the U.S. to be educated, hoping to escape the repression and indoctrination of the new Communist government there.  From December 1960 to October 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban children were secretly taken out of Cuba and sent alone to the U.S. What is now known as Operation Pedro Pan was at the time the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the western hemisphere. Approximately half of the minors were reunited with friends or relatives at the Miami airport. Some were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The children from the Cuban Refugee Children’s Program were placed in temporary shelters in Miami, and relocated to 30 states. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 ended all commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, ending Operation Pedro Pan.


“Migration today is not a phenomenon limited to some areas of the planet. It affects all continents and is growing into a tragic situation of global proportions. Not only does this concern those looking for dignified work or better living conditions, but also men and women, the elderly and children, who are forced to leave their homes in the hope of finding safety, peace and security. Children are the first among those to pay the heavy toll of emigration, almost always caused by violence, poverty, environmental conditions, as well as the negative aspects of globalization. The unrestrained competition for quick and easy profit brings with it the cultivation of perverse scourges such as child trafficking, the exploitation and abuse of minors and, generally, the depriving of rights intrinsic to childhood as sanctioned by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

- Excerpted from the Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 (1/15/2017 – published 9.8.2016)

The Catechism:

“The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored.The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” USCCB, Catholic Church’s Position on Immigration Reform; CCC, 2241.

“The second duty is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. Sovereign nations have the right to enforce their laws and all persons must respect the legitimate exercise of this right: “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” Ibid


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) opposes “enforcement only” immigration policies and supports comprehensive immigration reform. In Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. Catholic Bishops outlined the elements of their proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. These include:

  • Earned legalization
  • Future worker program
  • Family-based immigration reform
  • Restoration of due process rights
  • Addressing root causes
  • Enforcement

For a detailed exposition of each of these elements and other resources, see Migration and Refugee Services/Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at www.usccb.org

The U.S. bishops on enforcement

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) accepts the legitimate role of the U.S. government in enforcing immigration laws. However, enforcement measures should be:

  • Targeted on dangerous and criminal elements;
  • Proportional in terms of penalties and in the use of force; and
  • Humane, that is, it should preserve and respect the human rights and dignity of the person.

For more on these principles, see Migration and Refugee Services/Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 2011 at www.usccb.org

What you can do in support of immigrants…

  1. Participate in opportunities for English-language learning. Advocate for opportunities with local educational entities. Volunteer with ESL classes in the community or in your parish.
  2. Learn about the “brain waste” immigrants experience. Often college educated, professional people are denied opportunities to practice their professions once they arrive in the U.S. Educate yourself about these barriers and consider advocating with legislators and state professional boards to encourage licensing and certifications for qualified immigrants.
  3. Partonize immigrant businesses. Shop and dine with local businesses operated by immigrants. Learn about the challenges immigrant business owners face with regulations, red tape and access to credit.
  4. Work to help immigrants become naturalized. Learn about the resources in your community that help immigrants pursue citizenship. Help steer immigrants to those resources.
  5. Help the children. Health care, education, child care and a myriad of other issues are challenges for immigrant families with children. Investigate what is being done and what you can do to help, in your parish and in your community. 
  6. Advocate for compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform with your legislators at the state and national levels. Do you know what the Catholic Church teaches about immigration reform? Here’s a link to the information you need: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/churchteachingonimmigrationreform.cfm