Amid increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment, the Catholic Church must remain vocal in its ministry to and advocacy for migrants, Catholic leaders said at a Dec. 21 panel.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York; retired Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York; Kerry Alys Robinson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, and C. Mario Russell, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, said at the webinar panel that Catholics in the U.S. have both a moral and civil obligation to welcome the migrant.

Russell, whose organization hosted the webinar, said "something does feel different now, from what we have seen in the past 25 years or so," in society on the issue.

"Perhaps it's a gradual letting go of empathy or compassion as an imperative," he said. "Or perhaps it's the choice to ignore ... the self-understanding of ourselves as a nation of immigrants. Many have said much about migrants in the last 18 months, using demeaning, derogatory and dehumanizing rhetoric that stirs nothing but fear, difference and division."

Russell said anti-migrant rhetoric is followed "by policies designed to exclude and expel people."

Cardinal Dolan said the cause of migrants is of great concern to him as the great-grandchild of Irish immigrants, as a Catholic and as an American.

"I'm a believer in the Judeo-Christian tradition that considers it a moral imperative to welcome the immigrant and to protect them, and to further their cause in whatever society in which we live," Cardinal Dolan said. "It would be difficult to find a religious creed that has more of a legacy of welcoming and defending the immigrant than the Catholic Church. The very word 'Catholic' means everybody."

Migration is also a religious liberty issue, Cardinal Dolan said, as Catholics are called by their faith "to welcome and to aid and defend the immigrant."

Cardinal Dolan also said advocating for migrants is part of the church's cohesive pro-life ethic.

"I am honored to receive criticism and to be maligned for a defense of the immigrant," he said, adding that as a bishop, "we'll get two stacks of hate mail," one from those tired of the bishops' defense of the unborn child and the other from those tired of the bishops' defense of migrants.

"This is part of our Catholic responsibility to do this. And this is part of that pro-life ethic," Cardinal Dolan said.

Polls in 2023 have found increased partisanship on the issue of migration, with one Gallup poll finding a growing minority, or 41%, want immigration curtailed, without specifying unauthorized migration.

Meanwhile, just 23% of Americans said the government is doing a good job dealing with the large number of people seeking asylum at the border, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center. More than three times as many Americans, or 73%, said the government is doing a bad job.

Anti-migrant rhetoric also has seeped into the U.S. presidential campaign. At a Dec. 17 campaign event in New Hampshire, former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the GOP's nomination to return to the White House and has made a hardline immigration stance part of his platform, said immigrants coming to the U.S. are "poisoning the blood of our country," pointing to migrants from South America, Africa and Asia.

Catholic Charities USA, which represents a network of Catholic humanitarian organizations in the U.S., also had to respond earlier this year to what it called "disturbing" violent remarks by a social media influencer suggesting Catholic Charities' workers and volunteers should be shot for sheltering migrants.

Robinson said that "a small but vocal group of critics with political motivations have demonized Catholic Charities ministry to migrants in recent months and years."

Robinson said she did not spend much time focused on reacting "to such overt calumny" coming "from people who are either willfully misinformed or worse misrepresent our work for partisan reasons."

She emphasized, "The important fact is that Catholic Charities is not a political organization, but a faith-based humanitarian network. Catholic Charities agencies have been living out the Gospel, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and providing these services to migrants for more than a century."

Robinson said that as "the national conversation about immigration grows even more vitriolic, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we are speaking about human beings just like us with names and compelling stories and compelling hopes, especially on behalf of their children."

"We all agree that our immigration system is deeply flawed and in need of comprehensive reform," she said. "We should also be able to agree that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I can promise you that our Catholic Charities agencies will continue to do just that, even when we are reviled by some for doing so."