After US President Donald Trump asked Congress to pass stricter immigration laws if they plan to grant legal status to certain undocumented immigrants, one bishop said Trump’s proposals would hurt the vulnerable. “The Administration’s Immigration Principles and Policies do not provide the way forward for comprehensive immigration reform rooted in respect for human life and dignity, and for the security of our citizens,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the migration committee at the U.S. bishops’ conference, stated Oct. 10.
In an Oct. 8 letter to House and Senate leaders, President Trump pushed for the passage of stricter immigration laws and tougher enforcement, as part of Congress passing a version of the Dream Act. The latest version of the Dream Act was introduced this summer by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). It would grant permanent legal status to young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, who do not have a criminal record, who have lived in the U.S. for at least four years, and who meet other requirements.
When Congress failed to pass such a bill several years ago, the Obama administration announced in 2012 a program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), to delay the deportation of eligible immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, giving them time to apply for a continued stay in the U.S.
However, on Sept. 5, Trump ended the DACA program, saying it was the duty of Congress to address the matter. Any DACA-related legislation that would address the issue of Dreamers residing in the U.S., he said in Sunday’s letter, must be accompanied by stricter immigration policies in the name of national security.
In the letter to Congress, Trump cited an investigation of U.S. immigration laws which he ordered and which recently concluded. That investigation, he said, discovered weaknesses in the immigration system that needed addressing in the name of national security.
Trump called for the completion of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House in July approved a spending bill with $1.6 billion in border wall funding, but the Senate did not act on it. Currently, around 700 miles of the approximately 2,000 mile-long U.S.-Mexico border have a border fence.
Trump also supported stricter laws on the handling of unaccompanied minors who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. The number of unaccompanied minors coming from Central America rose sharply in recent years, peaking at over 50,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, falling in 2015 and rising once again to 47,000 in FY 2016. There have been around 38,500 unaccompanied children apprehended at the border in 2017, the administration said.
The administration in August ended a parole program for minors who were not eligible for refugee status to enter the U.S. Parents of such minors could have been eligible to apply for their child’s acceptance in the program, where they would have been vetted, if accepted, and granted legal entry into the U.S. Also in Trump’s policy proposals to Congress were stricter standards for granting asylum, speeding up the removal of those denied asylum, hiring more immigration enforcement officials, attorneys, and judges, and requiring an E-Verify system for employers.
Bishop Vasquez said that the proposals for stricter immigration standards would hurt vulnerable populations such as refugees and unaccompanied minors. The proposals “are not reflective of our country’s immigrant past, and they attack the most vulnerable, notably unaccompanied children and many others who flee persecution,” Bishop Vasquez said. “Most unfortunately, the principles fail to recognize that the family is the fundamental building block of our immigration system, our society, and our Church.”
Furthermore, he said, Congress should pass a version of the Dream Act immediately, regardless of whether other policy goals are fulfilled. Time is of the essence here, he said, because DACA protections will soon expire and young immigrants who benefitted from the program could lose their legal work permits in March 2018, being vulnerable to deportation and family separation.
However, Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Trump’s proposals are more of a “wish list to be in negotiations” rather than a hard set of demands that must be met for any Dream Act to be signed into law. “I don’t think that President Trump expects that Congress include every single of those 70 proposals in an immigration bill,” he told CNA.
Aguilar at one point during the 2016 campaign supported Trump as a candidate, but withdrew his support in September during the campaign because of Trump’s “restrictionist” immigration speech and plan to deport undocumented immigrants without criminal records. Aguilar also noted that in his letter to Congress, Trump proposed “allowing, basically, an immigration officer at the border to remove any unaccompanied minor back to their home country.”
The passage of the Dream Act is still on the table and has its supporters in both parties, Aguilar said. “From my conversations in Congress and with some in the White House, I think there’s a general understanding that the consensus has to be based on legislation that provides relief to Dreamers, and then resources for some interior enforcement and some border security,” he said. Trump, he said, is “committed” to the passage of “legislation that provides relief to Dreamers.”
In other immigration policies Trump called for on Sunday, the President is not taking the extreme positions that some make him out to be taking, Aguilar said. For instance, he said Trump is not calling for an end to green cards for family members of citizens or lawful permanent residents, but just wants them limited to immediate family members and not extended family. Calling for an E-Verify system is “a way for employers to know that the person applying for the job has legal status,” Aguilar said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has already been outspoken about some issues that Trump addressed in his policy proposals. Regarding the border wall proposal, Bishop Vasquez said in January that the construction of a wall “will put immigrant lives needlessly in harm's way,” making them “more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers.”
Bishops have also advocated for the U.S. to accept unaccompanied children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America, saying that many are fleeing violence in their home countries and that sending them back home could be akin to sending a child back into a “burning building.”
There is “abuse” within the system when it comes to asylum requests, Aguilar said, but “that doesn’t mean we have to reduce the limits of refugees.” Rather, he said, policy should focus on accepting those who should be coming to the U.S., and securing the country against the entry of those who shouldn’t be entering.
“Making those rules more strict, making it harder, doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be a compassionate country and grant asylum to people who really deserve it,” he said of Trump’s proposal of stricter laws on the entry of unaccompanied minors. “The idea is to ensure that those people who are getting asylum are people who really deserve it.”