FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The U.S. bishops June 13 decried U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision that asylum seekers fleeing domestic or gang violence cannot find protection in the United States.
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” the bishops’ statement said. They urged the nation’s policymakers and courts “to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.”
Sessions’ decision “elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection,” it said. “These vulnerable women will now face return to extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country.”
The statement from the bishops came on the first day of their June 13-14 spring assembly in Fort Lauderdale.
Just after opening prayers, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, read the statement from the dais, and the bishops voiced their support.
Announced by Sessions at a June 11 news conference, the decision “negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeting domestic violence,” it said. “Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors.”
The attorney general reversed an immigration court’s decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who said she had been abused by her husband. He said U.S. asylum laws cannot be used to remedy “all misfortune,” including violence someone suffers in another country or other reasons related to an individual’s “social, economic, family or other personal circumstances.”
In his remarks, Cardinal DiNardo also said he joined Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, “in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexican border as an implementation of the administration’s zero tolerance policy.”
“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma,” the cardinal said. “Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together.
“While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, said the new policy “is consistent with cardiosclerosis” or a hardening of the American heart. He called for a widespread discussion among bishops on how to more vocally respond to the practice.
He asked the bishops to consider sending a delegation to inspect the detention facilities holding children “as a sign of our pastoral response and protest against what is being done to children.”
Other bishops called for stronger outreach to members of Congress as it struggles to address comprehensive immigration reform and extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program covering 800,000 young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children.
“They need to hear from us,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn told the assembly. “There is an element of restrictionism, somewhat based on racism. It’s hard for people to decide what they think about it. But in fact that is what we are seeing. This is a crisis situation.”
Several bishops said it was imperative to do a better job of sharing church teaching on migration and welcoming the stranger, as Christ taught.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, expressed concern about a “very deliberate effort being made on the part of the administration, particularly the Department of Justice to put in regulations that actually defy the implementation of immigration law.”
He urged the entire body of bishops to become more active in pushing Congress and the courts to understand long-standing American values and practices regarding the welcoming of immigrants.
“It just seems nefarious how the immigration system is being undone by more and more restrictive regulations that are being put in place,” he said.
One bishop asked about the possibility of “canonical penalties” being enforced on Catholics who cooperate with unjust immigration policies. Bishop Edwin J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona, said such penalties are put in place to heal and “therefore, for the salvation of these people’s souls, maybe it’s time for us to look” at such action.
Beyond that, added Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, should be steps to offer broader pastoral care for immigration enforcement officials, some of whom he has heard from questioning the need to carry out “these unjust policies.”