Following a delegation of U.S. bishops’ trip to the Mexican border last month to show solidarity with more than 2,500 children separated from their parents, all eyes of Church officials are now on a July 26 deadline to see if the federal government will restore children aged 5-17 with their parents following a court order last month.

Yet according to government data, the prospects of fully meeting that deadline are highly unlikely, resulting in the U.S. Catholic Church becoming a leading player in picking up the pieces from it.

At the same time, further immigration fights continue to brew as a federal ruling on DACA is expected in August, and September is likely to be dominated by a Capitol Hill tug-of-war between lawmakers over appropriations spending for immigration and security related concerns.

With much on the horizon - and so much at stake - it’s useful to look at not just how immigration has taken center stage as the primary issue facing U.S. Church leaders, but the ways in which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has had to shift focus in order to keep up with the ever-evolving situation.

A Pivot to Immigration

Just days after the November presidential election in 2016, the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore for their general assembly, where a clear pivot to immigration already was in the works. If the issue that defined their engagement with the previous administration was religious liberty, it was evident that immigration would quickly mark the battle lines under Trump.

In a statement released at the time by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle in his capacity as then-chairman of the Committee on Migration, and affirmed by the full body, the bishops offered President-Elect Donald Trump their prayers and a pledge to work together where possible.

Those words, however, were accompanied with a strong plea on behalf of immigrants.

“We believe the family unit is the cornerstone of society, so it is vital to protect the integrity of the family…We pray that as the new administration begins its role leading our country, it will recognize the contributions of refugees and immigrants to the overall prosperity and well-being of our nation,” they wrote.

“We will work to promote humane policies that protect refugees and immigrants’ inherent dignity, keep families together, and honor and respect the laws of this nation,” the statement continued.

The U.S. bishops have long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform over piecemeal solutions. In their 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the bishops emphasized there is both a right to migrate and that countries have a right to secure their own borders, while also noting that wealthier nations have an obligation to welcome migrants.

The comprehensive advocacy of the bishops has long combined support for legislation that provides a pathway to full legalization, programs that keep families intact, border security enforcement, and concern for the root causes of migration.

Yet in September 2017, when the Trump administration announced it would end the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which protects immigrants who entered the United States as minors from deportation, finding a DACA fix became a critical priority.

In an interview with Crux on the very day the DACA decision was announced, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said “We [the U.S. bishops] had achieved…a remarkable unanimity when it came to the defense of religious freedom and now, we’re at it again,” expressing an unqualified unanimity among the bishops on protecting DACA beneficiaries.

The decision left over 800,000 individuals with an uncertain legal fate if Congress failed to find a solution by a March 2018 deadline set by the Attorney General, yielding what became a largely singular shift in focus among the bishops. While comprehensive immigration reform was the ultimate desired outcome, an immediate DACA fix to prevent mass deportations became the primary emphasis.

“DACA has colored everything since September, and it will continue to color things into this fall,” Ashley Feasley, director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the USCCB told Crux.

While the March deadline for DACA’s expiration has passed, it has been kept open by a series of court orders against the Trump administration. In April, a federal court ruled that the Trump administration cannot end protections for DACA recipients and must also continue to accept applications for new recipients to the program.

Meanwhile, immigration advocates are closely awaiting a ruling likely to come next month from the Southern District of Texas on a lawsuit claiming the Court has the authority to “immediately rescind and cancel all DACA permits currently in existence.”

Family Separation Shifts Focus

As DACA hangs in the balance - with the courts providing temporary protection rather than the bishops’ much sought-after permanent DACA deal - the crisis of reuniting families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border after the Trump administration enacted a “zero tolerance” policy aimed to deter migration efforts has become the next frontier for Catholic leaders.

Following the president’s executive order ending the separation, the USCCB’s office of Migration and Refugee Services is one of two organizations (the other being Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services) that the administration has now asked to assist where possible in reuniting families.

Of the 2,551 children eligible for reunification, fewer than 500 reunifications have been made as of last week, with nearly 1,000 more cleared for reunification as of a hearing last week. Even if all that are green lighted are reunited successfully, nearly 1,000 more will remain - all of which is estimated to cost tax payers $2 billion dollars, an expense that is likely to become the center of further partisan fights.

Along with that challenge, the U.S. bishops are proposing that instead of family detention, which is the administration’s alternative to separation, that a “family case management” program, supported by Catholic Charities and other groups, be embraced as an alternative solution.

The Family Case Management was a pilot program operated from January 21, 2016 through June 20, 2017 as the result of a federal grant to GEO Care, and successfully enrolled nearly 1,000 families.

The program, which operated out of 5 cities in partnership with multiple religious groups, provided custom-tailored care to each family, monitoring court appearances, providing legal assistance, arranging for medical care, and supervision, but allowed for families to live outside of federal detention facilities.

Despite plans for the pilot to last five years, Feasley told Crux the program was abruptly shuttered with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency citing ineffectiveness and costs as the reasons for closing the program - despite a 99 percent compliance rate and the Trump administration seeking an additional $1.6 billion dollars in funding for detention that same year.

While case management is more expensive than programs such as ankle bracelet monitoring, costing an estimated $38/day compared to $3-4/day, Feasley said it’s significantly cheaper than detention programs, which, on average, cost $300/day per unit.

Should the government opt for such an alternative, it would provide an occasion for organizations such as Catholic Charities to offer what Feasley describes as “facilitating and pioneering” a far more humane response meeting both the practical concerns of the U.S. government, alongside pastoral care.

A Looming Battle Ahead

Ahead of this fall’s midterm congressional elections, immigration will become a lynchpin issue for both parties - setting up not just another fight for congress and the president, but also the Church.

“I think it’s very unlikely we will get through the fall without another major immigration battle,” Feasley told Crux.

September 30 will mark the end of the fiscal year, and along with funding over reunification and detention as part of next year’s appropriations, there will once more likely be a push from the president for funding for the border wall - something Trump has previously said he is willing to shut down the government over if funding is not secured.

While Feasley said the bishops are grateful that reunification efforts are now underway, and they believe the experience from this past summer “whet the appetite [of the administration] for avoiding this again,” uncertainty remains on every front.

“How this all factors into the debates this fall remains unknown,” she told Crux, though she is hoping that the experiences of the past few months will help the administration recognize the “long-term expertise” that the Church brings to the issue of immigration - because the continued uncertainty for everyone is too much to bear.

Looking ahead to the fall - nearly two years after the bishops first vowed to work together with the new administration where possible, pledging also a commitment to “humane policies” and “keeping families together,” - Feasley said that remains the case, but for the sake of the millions of families affected by U.S. immigration policy, immediate solutions are needed.

“We have to find a way to do better,” she said.