It would be tough to find a pundit who isn’t expecting drastic changes from the executive branch once the Trump administration takes office Jan. 20. From foreign policy to health care to Twitter, everyone is pretty sure things will be different at the White House.

Immigration is no exception. On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive action that protected immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

What the Trump administration will do once it takes office is less clear, however, as Trump’s post-election rhetoric has softened. Take, for example, his interview with Time Magazine, who named Trump person of the year in 2016.

“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he told Time of the young immigrants brought here illegally, currently protected by the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals, or DACA. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

On the border wall, Trump has gone back and forth, saying at one point that it would be a fence rather than a wall in some areas, but then later repeated his campaign promise of a wall for which Mexico would foot the bill. He’s also scaled back rhetoric on deportations. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he said the administration would deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants who are “criminals,” rather than all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the country.

While his tone is softer, it has not comforted sectors of the U.S. population who are fearful of either being deported themselves or seeing a family member deported. Leaders in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have received hundreds of calls from concerned residents. Some Latino children at Catholic schools are fearful even though their family members are citizens or legal residents.

The sonorous campaign predictions on both sides of what a Trump presidency would mean to the immigrant population is still reverberating through the community. The president-elect’s post-election words don’t seem to be quieting down community fears.

U.S. and California lawmakers aren’t comforted by the change in tone, either. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) proposed legislation last week that would prevent the Trump administration from deporting those currently protected by DACA. In Sacramento, state lawmakers vowed to resist Trump administration measures that would target the undocumented immigrant community.

“Californians may accept the lawfulness of the November election, but millions of us do not accept the sentiment delivered by this election,” said Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) after being re-elected as leader of the Assembly. “It is up to us to pass policies that would firewall Californians — and what we believe — from the cynical, shortsighted and reactionary agenda that is rising in the wake of the election.”

Rendon said Californians should “be wary of national calls for unity and healing,” adding that “Californians don’t need healing. We need to fight.”

Prayer and politics

Amid the uncertainty, the Church in the United States has taken a different tack. The U.S. bishops called on the faithful to observe a national day of prayer and solidarity with families of immigrants Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“So many families are wondering how changes to immigration policy might impact them,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, vice-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We want them to know the Church is with them, offering prayers on their behalf, and is actively monitoring developments at the diocesan, state and national levels to be an effective advocate on their behalf.”

The U.S. bishops have been advocating for immigration reform for years. The Church is neither for an enforcement-only approach nor in favor of “open borders.”

“We have always said as a Church that a sovereign country has a right to govern its borders, so we don’t believe in open borders in that sense,” said Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cant√∫, whose diocese borders Mexico, in an interview with Angelus News. “But it has to be [a country] that respects what is most fundamental in respecting the unity of families and human dignity.”

The Church’s position in many ways is compatible with the sentiment of U.S. citizens. In August, the Pew Research Center reported vast support for prioritizing both better border security and establishing a pathway to citizenship.

Bishop Cant√∫ said immigration reform efforts have been started, but have failed over the years, noting attempts during the Bush administration in particular.

“It shouldn’t have to be a partisan issue, but when people’s careers as politicians are on the line, and they are counting on their constituency, they play to it. Thank goodness we bishops are not elected, so we’re not playing to a crowd,” he said.

“We’re basically trying to do what’s right, what is in consonance with the Gospel. People don’t always understand that. Sometimes that will take us to the right of the political spectrum, and sometimes it will take us to the left of the political spectrum,” Bishop Cant√∫ explained. “Quite frankly, I don’t care. What I want to do is be faithful to the Gospel.”

When those within the Church see things as “right” and “left,” it can pull the faithful apart, he said. The call is to evangelize, to unify rather than divide.

“Rather than judging our politics through the lens of our faith, we’re judging our religion through the lens of our politics,” Bishop Cant√∫ said. “So we’re putting the cart before the horse. Our faith has to be much more fundamental than our politics.”

Bishop Cant√∫ as well as Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores said their border dioceses received a number of unaccompanied minors from Central America. While some come for work, others are fleeing violence.

“From Central America I think it is well documented how 14-15-year-old kids, if they don’t join the gangs, they get killed, and so that’s the humanity of it,” Bishop Flores said in an interview with Angelus News. “It’s the Church’s responsibility to make sure that, whatever the administration would ask for or what they’ll try to enforce, humanity and the human story is not lost. We’re not talking about statistics. We’re talking about mothers and children. And in situations of Mexican families, we are talking about some very tragic things.”

It’s urgent that Congress passes some kind of immigration reform, Bishop Flores argued, so that the nation can distinguish from those who are fleeing criminals and those who are criminals themselves. Powerful drug cartels and human trafficking are commonplace in northern Mexico.

“I’m talking about human trafficking,” he said. “I’m talking about children whose organs are harvested, I’m talking about horrendous … what the Holy Father talks about when he talks about the buying and selling of people. That is something that we have to be clear about: one of the purposes of a reform is to help change the system in a way that doesn’t hurt families, but also to try to find a way to distinguish between people who are fleeing violence and those who are inflicting it.”

Every week, Bishop Flores hears from those who have suffered through a kidnapping or been involved with the drug trade or who have been extorted. The faithful in his diocese have family across the Rio Grande, and his border diocese is connected economically to Mexico.

The same can be said of the Diocese of Tucson, where Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas reported that community and economic leaders joined together in recent years to discuss the benefits of immigration reform throughout the state. Reform would be an economic benefit to the U.S., he said.

“You know, part of the immigrant community today is fearful because of some of the rhetoric,” Bishop Kicanas said. “But then on the other side there are people who support the wall, who support deporting people who are also fearful because they feel that their lives are being taken from them and their country is being taken from them.”

Alleviating fears comes through an encounter, he said. Bishop Kicanas wants to help the Trump administration meet migrants “who have names, who have families, who have dreams and hopes and are not unlike the people the president-elect has been talking about who have been forgotten, who have been marginalized and who feel they don’t have a voice.”

He added: “If people understood the dreams of our migrant families and refugee families, I think people would understand that they are the very same dreams that they have.”

The Church, while holding that nations must enforce the law for the common good, also maintains that individuals have a right to immigrate. “When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive,” the U.S. and Mexican bishops wrote in a joint pastoral letter called “Strangers No Longer,” issued in 2003.

Still, Bishop Kicanas said immigrants usually leave their country of origin as a last resort.

“Why would you want to leave a place that’s home, a place where your language is spoken, where the culture is something you’re familiar with?” explained Bishop Kicanas, who served as chairman of Catholic Relief Services a few years ago. “So we have to work to end the violence that exists around the world, whether it’s in Central America, or Syria or wherever. And then we have to work to help the economic situation, which is also very troubling to people. If you can’t feed your children, you are going to do whatever you can to do that.” 

What’s next?

According to the bishops on the border, their communities are nervous about what will happen. Yet this tension isn’t new, according to Bishop Flores.

“There have been 2.5 million deportations in the last eight years,” he noted. “I’ve asked people to kind of trust the fact that we will have an opportunity in this country, of course, to be able to make our positions known once we have a sense of where the administration is going. We will do so vigorously. I think that is part of the work of the Church. It may or may not be popular, but it is what the Church must do.”

The Church advocates for family-based immigration reform. As it is, it can take families 5-10 years to go through the immigration process. This leads to breakdowns within the fabric of society, according to Bishop Cant√∫.

“The family unit is absolutely critical. It is the basis of society,” he said. “When that crumbles, when it disintegrates, then so does society. And we’ve seen the effects of that in the United States as well as in other parts of the world. And so we’re simply saying, let’s try to keep these families intact.”

Bishop Kicanas hopes that the Trump administration will be open to see the reality of immigrant families and how the country can move forward.

“He wants to make America great, and I think one of the greatest pieces of who we are as a nation is our diversity and our respect for family life, for the dignity of the person and how we can continue to raise that voice,” he said.

It’s a contentious dialogue, to be sure, but one that the bishops are committed to having.

“Our first obligation is a certain docility to the Gospel and the fundamental call of ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of mine you do to me,’” Bishop Flores said. “That doesn’t fit into a political platform, but it is something that needs to be the light by which we judge a political platform. And that’s an ongoing work.”

rnUnited States bishops on immigration reformrn

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports comprehensive immigration reform, including: 
rnEarned legalization: An earned legalization program would allow foreign nationals of good moral character who are living in the United States to apply to adjust their status to obtain lawful permanent residence. Such a program would create an eventual path to citizenship, requiring applicants to complete and pass background checks, pay a fine and establish eligibility for resident status to participate in the program. Such a program would help stabilize the workforce and promote family unity.
rnFuture worker program: A worker program to permit foreign-born workers to enter the country safely and legally would help reduce illegal immigration and the loss of life in the American desert. Any program should include workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers and family unity.
rnFamily-based immigration reform: It currently takes years for family members to be reunited through the family-based legal immigration system. This leads to family breakdown and, in some cases, illegal immigration. Changes in family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.
rnAddressing root causes: Congress should examine the root causes of migration, such as underdevelopment and poverty in sending countries, and seek long-term solutions. The antidote to the problem of illegal immigration is sustainable economic development in sending countries. 
rnEnforcement: The U.S. Catholic bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States. The bishops also believe that by increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers and would-be terrorists. 

Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops