Is enforcing U.S. immigration law a moral evil that demands excommunication? Or would a new proposal politicize the Eucharist, strengthen organized crime, and hurt even more migrant children?
Roman Catholics must face these questions after Bishop Edward Weisburger of Tucson suggested “canonical penalties” for Border Patrol agents “involved in” separating children from their parents.
He told his brother bishops at the USCCB’s biannual meeting in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday that he makes this suggestion “in light of the canonical penalties that are there for life issues,” raising the issue to the level of abortion-on-demand. This would make a “prophetic statement” and further “the salvation of these people’s souls,” he said.
To discourage the abuse of immigration laws, especially fraudulent asylum clams, the Trump administration has curtailed the previous “catch-and-release” policy. Children caught illegally entering the U.S. with an adult are held separately until a final decision is reached. While the conditions of their surroundings are disputed, these are the facts faithful people need to ponder about this moral issue:
Asylum laws shelter individuals facing persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Victims of domestic abuse or gang violence – as sympathetic as they may be – do not qualify, since many could find relief without leaving their country.
However, the Obama administration redefined them as a social group and released them, especially those with children. Predictably, the number of asylum hearings skyrocketed from 4,000 in 2009 to 73,000 in 2016 – with a backlog topping the hundreds of thousands. The fact that half of all asylum-seekers released do not show up for their court hearing suggests economic migrants seek the system as an illegal “backdoor” that rewards misrepresenting one’s status, at the expense of victims of true persecution. This triggered the Trump administration’s response.
Immigrants can avoid separation from their children by applying for asylum before they reach the U.S., or by entering with a legal visa. “Individual children are separated from their parents only when those parents cross the border illegally and are arrested,” according to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
ICE operates three family detention facilities, which can accommodate 3,326 people. Border Patrol agents captured nearly three-times as many “family units” breaking immigration laws in May alone – 59,113 since last October. “We can’t have children with parents who are in incarceration,” said Azar. Thus, most children must either be released with their families as a unit or held separately from their parents.
Pathways to the U.S. are either operated or controlled by international criminal gangs. “An understanding exists among transnational criminal organizations, smugglers and individuals seeking transport that trying to cross the border independently is not an option,” ICE explained recently. The gangs are paid for allowing this transit through “their” territory. They then use a portion of the proceeds to “fuel their other criminal enterprises.”
Human smugglers care about human life less than the federal government; thus, they make poor babysitters. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen recounted how agents found a three-year-old El Salvadoran child abandoned by coyotes as an example of indifference and neglect.
“However, by far the most vile crime in which these organizations and other criminals are engaged is the exploitation and trafficking of children,” Hanen wrote, “as it takes advantage of children and subjects them to violence, extortion, forced labor, sexual assault, or prostitution.” (Emphasis in original.)
The effect of overly lenient U.S. immigration laws is “to encourage parents to put their minor children in perilous situations subject to the whims of evil individuals.”
Thus, violating U.S. immigration laws funds the breaking of other laws and strengthens the criminal syndicates that many asylum-seekers are fleeing in the first place. The Obama-era release policy for those accompanied by minors induced parents to loan or rent out their children to criminals seeking to enter the U.S. – bringing the crime that migrants are fleeing into their new homeland.
Amnesty advocates are right: Immigration is a life issue, but not in the way they imagine.
But does the goal of stopping human trafficking justify this means?
Parents and children should not be separated except out of necessity. But if a parent is violating the law through duplicitous means (lying about persecution), one could argue the offending parent has temporarily forfeited custody.
This applies to U.S. citizens who are accused of abuse or neglect (often erroneously), who must watch their children taken in by Child Protective Services (in whose custody they are sometimes abused horribly).
Should Bishops deny Communion to border agents for doing their duty?
Whatever one thinks of the current child detention policy, it certainly does not cross the threshold of immoral behavior that demands excommunication.
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) in the document “Worthiness to Receive.”
Even a Catholic “at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war … would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.”
Both of these issues are better established in the Magisterium than the de novo moral orthodoxy on the best way to house illegal aliens.
Excommunicating border agents would be precisely what liberal critics accuse pro-life Catholics of doing: weaponizing the Eucharist for political ends.
Nonetheless, Bishop Weisburger’s inquiry has rendered an invaluable service beyond the bounds of the Roman Church: He has made clear that a merciful ministry and spiritual healing demand canonical penalties be imposed against those “involved in” violating “life issues.”
By suggesting excommunication over such a new, undeveloped, and apparently prudential issue as this, he highlights the far greater injustice that Catholic clergy do not withhold the Body of Christ from those violating clear-cut moral issues, especially abortion.
We look forward to this being raised at the next USCCB meeting “for the salvation of these people’s souls” and the integrity of the episcopal witness.