Top US bishop worries Catholic border services for migrants might be imperiled by government action

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Government officials would be infringing on religious freedom if they were to restrict the Catholic Church’s work serving migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, says a top U.S. bishop.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the issue this week while in Louisville, Kentucky, for a USCCB meeting where migration issues, including the long wait for religious worker visas, came up repeatedly. He acknowledged recent targeting of faith-based border work by government officials, including the Texas attorney general’s attempts to shutdown a Catholic nonprofit that has operated a network of migrant shelters for decades.

“We obviously want to respect the law, but if that liberty is restricted, then yes, our religious liberty is being restricted because we can’t put into practice the precepts of the Gospel,” Broglio said during a news conference Thursday.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, who chairs the USCCB’s committee on migration, echoed that worry: “We’re very concerned about our ability to continue to have the freedom to serve them.”

Leaders from numerous faith organizations have long shouldered most of the care for tens of thousands of migrants on both sides of the border.

American bishops overseeing dioceses along the border are trying to respect both the Gospel and law, Broglio said. But he is wary of election-year politics stalling any possible progress toward fixing migration problems.

“We cannot cease in our efforts to proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops and to see if we cannot influence those in power at the very least to improve the conditions in the countries of origin so that migration is not seen as a necessity for life,” Broglio said in his opening address to the conference.

He cited the government crackdown on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua that has forced many clergy to flee the country.

Seitz noted the long-standing political impasse in Congress on immigration reform during his presentation at the meeting Friday.

He announced a new educational program about how Catholic social teachings are linked to caring for migrants – a counter to the misinformation and disinformation on immigration issues that Catholics are hearing elsewhere. Catholics and Christian voters in general are divided on approaches to migration crisis.

“This hostility towards Christian charity has even risen to the point of accusing Catholic ministries engaged in service to migrants and refugees of facilitating the evil of human trafficking,” Seitz said. “Yet, many of those same entities actively work with the law enforcement to identify and counter such criminal activity, and to assist those who have been victimized by it.”

Seitz gave the bishops an update on the longer waits for religious worker visas and renewals, which are affecting many priests in the U.S. Coupled with long waits for green cards, he said the situation “

This is already happening in some dioceses, he said.

“Importantly we’re not alone in this regard. Our brothers and sisters in other traditions are grappling with the same realities, unsure of how to plan for the future,” Seitz said.

After meetings with the White House and the Homeland Security and State departments, a forthcoming regulation is expected to help ease the religious worker visa wait time, he said. Seitz urged bishops to continue putting pressure on their congressional delegations for reforms, adding that “our collective voice is critical in this moment.”

President Joe Biden’s recent directive seeking to severely restrict asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border has created more unknowns for migrants and those serving them, Seitz said.

“A lot of people expected the door of the border to be closed like you could just turn the key and that would be it when the executive order took effect. That has not been the case,” Seitz said at Thursday's news conference.

In his diocese, about 375 migrants who had been processed by the U.S. Border Patrol were released into the care of Catholic shelters on Thursday alone, he said. He is taking a wait-and-see attitude before determining how the new executive order will affect their work on the border.

“One of our big concerns is if a lot of people – practically everyone – is turned back, then where do they go?” Seitz said. “What happens with the limited options that they have on the Mexico side of the border? And those are things we’re trying to be very attentive to.”

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