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U.S. bishops back extension of protected migrant status

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WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration said some migrants from Honduras and El Salvador cannot safely return to their home countries in the near future and should have a special immigration permit extended. Read more »

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Bishop Vasquez urges U.S. to help solve Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration called on the federal government to work with the Myanmar government and the international community to solve the crisis affecting the persecuted Rohingya people.

Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, said in written testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Oct. 5 that the situation affecting the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar deserve “safe, humane and voluntary durable solutions” as they struggle amid violence that has caused them to flee their homeland.

A girl holds an umbrella as Rohingya refugees arrive for prayer at a mosque near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Oct. 6. Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, said in written testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Oct. 5 that the situation affecting the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar deserves “safe, humane and voluntary durable solutions” as they struggle amid violence that has caused them to flee their homeland. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 after government forces began retaliating after attacks on security check posts by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The conflict has resulted in more than 1,000 Rohingya deaths, dozens of houses burned and countless women being raped.

Bishop Vasquez offered several recommendations to the House committee, including steps to stabilize the situation in Rakhine state and Bangladesh, provide protection and humanitarian assistance for the displace Rohingya, resettlement of Rohingya in other countries as necessary, and work for long-term peace while addressing the root causes for the displacement of people from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The majority of Rohingya are Muslim and a minority are Hindu. They have lived in the area formerly known as Arakan, now Rakhine state, long before the Burmese occupation from 1784 to 1826 and British rule from 1826 to 1948.

Yet, Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, considering them instead as Bengali, infiltrators from Bangladesh. In 1982, a controversial law stripped citizenship from the Rohingya, officially making them stateless.

Decades of persecution by the military and extremist Buddhists forced tens of thousands to flee to various countries, mostly to Bangladesh. The most recent violence caused thousands more to seek safety.

Bishop Vasquez said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Migration and Refugee Services has resettled some Rohingya people in the U.S., but that the need was greater than the ability of any one country can meet.

He called on the U.S. to raise the number of refugees being admitted to the country during fiscal year 2018 from 45,000, as determined by President Donald Trump at the end of September, to 75,000. The bishop said the 45,000 figure represents the fewest number of refugees to be admitted since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which formalized the country’s refugee program.

Bishop Vasquez also expressed frustration with Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, for not being “publicly very vocal about the plight of these Muslims from Rakhine state.” While Suu Kyi has been an outspoken defender of civil rights and pushed for democratic reforms under the military government of Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya has not been adequately addressed, he said.

He urged further efforts be undertaken whereby the country’s “ethnic groups have an ongoing process for seeking to build a federal, democratic system in which all of Burma’s people have access to shared governance and shared resources.”

“As we shed light on the human rights tragedies in Burma, we urge continued U.S. support to resolve these critical situations and to support the democratically elected government in addressing these situations while also supporting their broader efforts to build a new, democratic, inclusive Burma,” the bishop said.

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Disturbing, shameful: Bishops join opposition to reported U.S. refugee limit

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Catholic bishops and other faith groups are objecting to reports that the Trump administration will limit the number of refugees the United States accepts to 45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

A severely malnourished child is seen as Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid Sept. 25 at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Immigrants and refugees need to be respected and assisted, not treated like an enemy, a panel said during a Sept. 27 news conference at the Vatican launching the Caritas “Share the Journey” campaign. (CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)

It would be the lowest admission level for persons fleeing persecution that the U.S. has accepted since the executive branch was allowed to set the caps in 1980 under the Refugee Act, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

“We are disturbed and deeply disappointed by the proposed presidential determination number of 45,000,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

“While the Catholic bishops, Catholic Charities, and Catholic communities across the country join in welcoming all of those refugees to American communities with joy and open arms, we are gravely concerned for the tens of thousands of extremely vulnerable refugees left behind by this decision,” he said in a Sept. 29 statement.

“As I have stated before, this decision has very severe human consequences — people with faces, names, children and families are suffering and cannot safely or humanely remain where they are until the war and persecution in their countries of origin gets resolved,” Bishop Vasquez said.

“These people include at-risk women and children; frightened youth; the elderly; those whose lives are threatened because of their religion, ethnicity or race; and refugees seeking family reunification with loved ones in the United States,” he added.

David Robinson, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service, called the 45,000 figure a “shamefully low number.”

Robinson said in a Sept. 27 statement that setting such a low goal “is a retreat from global leadership and undermines both our interests and our values. Our faith calls us to be compassionate, and this unprecedented policy is in direct opposition to the belief that we should welcome the stranger, especially the victims of war, terror and oppression.”

The limit comes at a time when one in every 113 people in the world is facing displacement from their home country because of conflicts, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Last year, the agency said 65 million people around the world suffered that type of displacement.

“With historically high numbers of innocent people fleeing violence worldwide, the United States response cannot be to welcome a historically low number of refugees into our country,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, said Sept. 27.

Bishop Vasquez said the U.S. Catholic bishops are urging the Trump administration “to welcome and resettle every one of the refugees eventually authorized” for fiscal year 2018. “Looking ahead, we strongly urge the administration next year to return to the level of resettling at least 75,000 refugees annually to the United States,” he added. “We can and must do better.”

Other faith groups, including the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the second-largest refugee resettlement agency in the U.S., said it was “profoundly disappointed” at the reduction.

When the Refugee Act of 1980 went into effect, the U.S. set the cap at over 231,000 refugees. Though it has declined steadily since then, the country has accepted between 70,000 to 80,000 displaced persons each year for almost two decades. President Barack Obama set the cap for fiscal year 2017 at 110,000 during his last year in the White House.

In his first executive order as president, Donald Trump, set the cap at 50,000 and said any more than that “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Just as they did then, many faith communities still disagree with the president.

“Churches and communities, employers and mayors are heartsick at the administration’s callous and tragic decision to deny welcome to refugees most in need,” said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“We are not afraid of our new neighbors and are not fooled by cruel and false claims that refugees are a threat to our safety,” she said Sept. 27. “The American legacy of welcoming refugees has made us stronger and better, and the government’s own research proves that refugees bring economic benefit to our country through their hard work.”

In his statement, Bishop Vasquez noted that “each refugee that comes to the United States is admitted through an extensive vetting system. Many of these refugees already have family in the United States, and most begin working immediately to rebuild their lives; in turn contributing to the strength and richness of our society.

“God has blessed our country with bounty and precious liberty,” he continued, “and so we have great capacity to welcome those in such desperate need, while ensuring our nation’s security.”

Bishop Vasquez noted that on Sept. 27, when the Trump administration released its recommendation for the 45,000-cap on refugees, that same day Pope Francis “exhorted us to ‘reach out, open your arms to migrants and refugees, share the journey.’”

At the Vatican, the pope launched the two-year “Share the Journey” campaign of Catholic charities around the world to promote encounters between people on the move and people living in the countries they are leaving, passing through or arriving in.

“We urge the administration to move past this period of intensified scrutiny and skepticism of the U.S. refugee program, which serves as an international model,” Bishop Vasquez said. “This is a moment of opportunity to restore America’s historic leadership as a refuge for those fleeing persecution.”

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Pope offers prayers for victims of flooding in Texas, Louisiana

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis offered his prayers for the people of Texas and Louisiana struggling to cope with the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey and he praised all those engaged in rescuing and caring for the thousands of people forced out of their homes.

A worker helps an elderly woman from a rescue boat as it evacuates people from the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Harvey Aug. 30 in Houston. (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

In a message to Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Pope Francis asked that his “spiritual closeness and pastoral concern” be relayed to all those affected by the hurricane and flooding.

The message was sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and released by the Vatican Aug. 31.

“Deeply moved by the tragic loss of life and the immense material devastation that this natural catastrophe has left in its wake, he prays for the victims and their families, and for all those engaged in the vital work of relief, recovery and rebuilding,” Cardinal Parolin said.

Pope Francis, he said, “trusts that the immense and immediate needs of so many individuals and communities will continue to inspire a vast outpouring of solidarity and mutual aid in the best traditions of the nation.”

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Bishop Malooly announces collection for victims of Hurricane Harvey

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Bishop Malooly has asked all Catholic parishes in Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore to take up a special collection this weekend, Sept. 2 and 3, to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey. Read more »

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Catholic groups are mobilizing to help in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath

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Catholic News Service

Catholic dioceses and charities are quickly organizing to help in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall with heavy rains and winds of 130 miles per hour late Aug. 25 into the Rockport, Texas area, northeast of Corpus Christi. The National Weather Service said in a tweet Aug. 27 that the rainfall expected after the hurricane and storm are over “are beyond anything experienced before.” The hurricane, named Harvey, is said to be the strongest one to hit the United States in more than a decade and perhaps the strongest one to make landfall in Texas.

Lisa Rehr embraces her four-year old son Maximus as they await to be evacuated Aug. 26 from Rockport, Texas. (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

Catholic Charities USA, as well as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Disaster Services, announced early on Aug. 26 that they’re mobilizing to help an as-yet-unknown number of persons affected by the hurricane. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has a list of charities helping with the disaster listed on its website at https://txcatholic.org/harvey.

Authorities reported at least five casualties as of Aug. 27, but because of safety issues, not many emergency teams have been yet able to respond to the aftermath and much of the damage is unknown. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared the state a disaster area, which will allow federal money to help in reconstruction. Catholic groups said they want to help with the immediate needs of the communities affected.

“We will be sending in rapid-response teams to help our impacted St. Vincent de Paul councils and we are coordinating nationally with the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta and (Catholic Charities USA),” said Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Aug. 27 urged “all people of goodwill to closely monitor future calls for assistance for victims and survivors in the days ahead.”

The cardinal also is the head of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in a catastrophic and devastating way this weekend, bringing with it severe flooding and high winds which have taken human life, caused countless injuries, and severely damaged homes and property throughout the region,” said the cardinal in an Aug. 27 news release. “The effects of this storm continue to put people in harm’s way, with horrific scenes playing out all around, such as those of people trapped on their rooftops as water continues to rise around them. Many dioceses of the church in the United States have been affected; many others will be as the storm continues.”

He asked for prayers but also for assistance for those affected. One of the first to pledge help was the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, where Bishop Daniel E. Flores authorized a second collection to be taken up at the diocese’s local churches on the weekend of Aug. 26-27 to send to Catholic Charities in nearby Corpus Christi and “other places hardest hit by loss of power, storm damage, flooding.”

It’s been hard to communicate with other areas, said Bishop Flores in an Aug. 26 interview with Catholic News Service, so it’s hard to gauge the extent of the damage. But he said his diocese wanted to get a head start to quickly divert help where it is needed and as fast as possible.

If the Rio Grande Valley, where Bishop Flores’ diocese is located, was spared the major impact of Hurricane Harvey, then the diocese had a duty to help their neighbors to the north, in the coastal areas of Corpus Christi and Galveston-Houston, which seemed to be hit hardest, he said. Hurricane Harvey seemed to enter near Corpus Christi and affected seven coastal counties in Texas and one Louisiana parish.

“We continue to pray for every for everyone affected by the hurricane and those who are at risk as the storms continue,” said Bishop Flores in a statement.

Though the brunt of the hurricane’s winds has passed and Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm hours after landfall, heavy rains and “catastrophic flooding” are expected for days, said the National Hurricane Center.

“We have to remember … the families affected by flood damage in the next few days in other parts of the state will be in need of relief,” said Bishop Flores. “We will assess better how we can help as we get further information about the needs from the (Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops) and Catholic Charities.”

In an Aug. 26 statement published by the Galveston-Houston archdiocese, Cardinal DiNardo said powerful winds and heavy rainfall have already impacted many lives and homes throughout the region, and many in the southern counties of his archdiocese have already suffered substantial property damage and losses

In Houston, the country’s fourth largest city with 6.6 million residents, many struggled seeking safety in flooded residential streets, which are expected to get up to 50 inches of rainfall by the time the rain stops sometime at the end of August.

“Numerous homes in these communities are currently without power. Several forecasts anticipate additional storm damage and flooding in the coming days, along with high winds and tornado activity,” Cardinal DiNardo said.

Up to 250,000 have been reported without power in Texas, a number that’s expected to rise.

San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller said in a statement that the archdiocese pledged its support to recovery efforts that will start after the rain and wind subside. 

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of the dioceses of Corpus Christi and Victoria, as well as the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, as they cope with the damaging effects of Hurricane Harvey,” he said. “The people of San Antonio have opened their arms to welcome evacuees of this historic hurricane, and Catholic Charities of the archdiocese has been assisting and will continue to assist in a variety of ways those impacted by this natural disaster.”

Bishop W. Michael Mulvey, of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, said he was grateful to the bishops who reached out to him and to his diocese. He said the true damage around the diocese still is not known and officials are waiting for conditions that will allow a better assessment of the damage.

In his statement, Cardinal DiNardo asked for prayers for emergency personnel and volunteers who are out and about in dangerous conditions and also “for those residing in our archdiocese, in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, be safe and may God have mercy on those affected by Hurricane Harvey.”

       

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Catholic groups ask Congress to reject ‘discriminatory’ RAISE Act

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Calling a proposed piece of legislation “discriminatory,” the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration called on the president and Congress to reject a bill that seeks to drastically cut legal immigration levels in half over a decade and which also would greatly limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to bring family into the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump makes an announcement on the introduction in the Senate of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE, with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., at the White House Aug. 2. (CNS photo/Zach Gibson, pool via EPA)

U.S. President Donald Trump makes an announcement on the introduction in the Senate of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE, with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., at the White House Aug. 2. (CNS photo/Zach Gibson, pool via EPA)

Other Catholic groups also called for an end to the legislation.

“Had this discriminatory legislation been in place generations ago, many of the very people who built and defended this nation would have been excluded,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the bishops’ migration committee.

In a news release late Aug. 2, he criticized the RAISE Act introduced earlier in the day by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and David Perdue, of Georgia.

In addition to cutting legal immigration, the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or RAISE Act, would create a system of legal immigration different from the current one that favors family ties. Instead, it would move toward a system under which points would be awarded for a person’s ability to speak English, level of education, age, as well as “high-paying job offers, past achievements, and entrepreneurial initiative,” according to a White House statement praising the proposal.

Other limitations proposed by the RAISE Act would permanently cap the number of refugees allowed safe passage, “thereby denying our country the necessary flexibility to respond to humanitarian crisis,” said Bishop Vasquez.

“As a church, we believe the stronger the bonds of family, the greater a person’s chance of succeeding in life. The RAISE Act imposes a definition of family that would weaken those bonds,” he said.

Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, said the bill “is a nonstarter from a Catholic perspective, as it weakens the family unit and favors the rich over the poor. It also is part of a larger strategy by the administration to reduce the ethnic diversity of the immigrant population in this nation.”

The proposed bill was largely criticized and caused an uproar shortly after the president’s televised support early Aug. 2, saying it would reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayer money, adding that many current legal immigrants are low-skilled and many receive welfare benefits.

Later in the day, senior White House adviser Stephen Miller further added to the controversy over the bill after he seemed dismissive during a news briefing of the Statue of Liberty’s “”The New Colossus” poem and the line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and in defending the bill’s ability-to-speak-English requirement.

Even some of the president’s fellow Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said he has supported “merit-based” immigration, said he would not support the bill.

Bishop Vasquez said the bill would be detrimental to families and negates contributions of past immigrants to the U.S., and he called on Congress and the administration instead “to work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact into law comprehensive immigration reform.”

“I believe that such reform must recognize the many contributions that immigrants of all backgrounds have made to our nation, and must protect the lives and dignity of all, including the most vulnerable,” said Bishop Vasquez.

Christopher G. Kerr, executive director of the Ohio-based Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national social justice education and advocacy organization, said from a faith perspective, it’s hard to back the RAISE Act if you reflect on the words of the pope, who called on Americans during his 2015 apostolic visit “to not turn their backs on their neighbors.”

But the RAISE Act does just that by creating “obstacles to family unity for immigrant families and block access to safety for tens of thousands of refugees,” he said.

“We continue to call for immigration policies that support family unity, provide pathways to citizenship, and promote humane and just treatment of immigrants — the RAISE Act does not respond to this call,” said Kerr.

 

Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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Bishop calls bill that reduces legal immigration ‘discriminatory’

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Calling a proposed piece of legislation “discriminatory,” the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration called on the president and Congress to reject a bill that seeks to drastically cut legal immigration levels over a decade, and which also would greatly limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to bring family into the U.S. Read more »

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Catholic leaders mourn ‘senseless deaths’ in trafficking tragedy

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SAN ANTONIO — The “completely senseless deaths” of 10 people who died of heat exhaustion and suffocation they suffered from being held in a tractor-trailer “is an incomprehensible tragedy,” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio.

Police officers in San Antonio work a crime scene at Walmart July 23 after eight people were found dead inside an 18-wheeler truck. Several others were hospitalized in critical condition and the death toll reached 10 as of early July 24. Authorities say the truck was smuggling immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. (CNS photo/Ray Whitehouse, Reuters)

Police officers in San Antonio work a crime scene at Walmart July 23 after eight people were found dead inside an 18-wheeler truck. Several others were hospitalized in critical condition and the death toll reached 10 as of early July 24. Authorities say the truck was smuggling immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. (CNS photo/Ray Whitehouse, Reuters)

“There are no words to convey the sadness, despair and, yes, even anger we feel today,” he said in a statement released late July 23.

Earlier in the day, San Antonio law enforcement officials found eight bodies inside the trailer of an 18-wheeler sitting in the parking lot of a Walmart. The eight people who died were among 39 people packed in the trailer and suffering from extreme dehydration and heatstroke. At least 20 others rescued from the truck were in critical condition and transported to the hospital. Two later died, and by July 24 the death toll was at least 10.

In a July 24 statement, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration said the nation’s Catholic bishops joined their voices in mourning the loss of life and condemning the treatment of migrants, many of whom were from Mexico and Guatemala, in a suspected human trafficking operation.

“The loss of lives is tragic and avoidable. We condemn this terrible human exploitation that occurred and continues to happen in our country,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin.

“In a moment such as this, we reflect upon the words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, ‘The defense of human beings knows no barriers: We are all united wanting to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land,’” Bishop Vasquez said.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus called it “a horrific tragedy” and said it was being looked at as “a human trafficking crime.”

AP reported that James Matthew Bradley, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., believed to be the driver of the tractor-trailer, was a suspect in the case and had been arrested on charges of smuggling.

San Antonio is about 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The temperature in the Texas city July 23 was 101 degrees all day and well into late evening. The human cargo in the tractor-trailer was discovered after someone left the truck and asked a Walmart worker for water, AP said.

In his statement, Archbishop Garcia-Siller said the community was praying for the recovery of the adults and children who were hospitalized. AP said that at least four of the survivors were between the ages of 10 and 17.

“Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio has already reached out to our mayor and promised to offer whatever assistance is needed. We will do anything possible for these brothers and sisters and their families,” he said.

Archbishop Garcia-Siller said the tragedy was “a clarion call” for the nation to make immigration reform a priority.

“Everyone — the churches, law enforcement, state and national elected officials, civic organizations, charitable groups — has to prioritize the immigration issue and truly work together in new ways which have eluded us in the past for common sense solutions. No more delays. No more victims,” he said.

He recalled that when 19 people died in similar circumstances in a locked trailer in nearby Victoria in 2003, “the nation was stunned, and people of good will vowed to work diligently to ensure that something such as this would never happen again.”

“Unfortunately, law enforcement has reported an upsurge in these types of human smuggling and trafficking operations at the border in recent months,” Archbishop Garcia-Siller said.

      Such incidents involve “increasingly desperate individuals seeking safety and a better life for their families placing their well-being and indeed their lives in the hands of reprehensible, callous smugglers and traffickers,” he said.

      “We pray for these victims and all victims of human smuggling and trafficking; that this monstrous form of modern slavery will come to a quick and final end,” the archbishop added. “God cries seeing this reality and many other situations such as this across our country and around the world.”

      In a separate statement, the Austin-based Texas Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, joined Archbishop Garcia-Siller in mourning the migrants’ deaths and praying for the survivors.

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U.S. bishops call for permanent protection for young migrants

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chair of the migration committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the Trump administration to “ensure permanent protection” for youth who were brought to the U.S. as minors without legal documentation. Read more »

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