14 June 2018, The Tablet

US Catholic bishops condemn Trump’s ‘immoral’ asylum policy changes, urge ‘canonical penalties’

Criticism follows Attorney General’s reversal of appeals court decision granting asylum to Salvadoran woman who claimed domestic abuse

US Catholic bishops condemn Trump’s ‘immoral’ asylum policy changes, urge ‘canonical penalties’

Prelates vote June 14 during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual spring assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Photo: Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this week opened its spring gathering with rebukes against the Trump administration’s “immoral” immigration policies, with bishops condemning “the hardening of the American heart” and urging “canonical penalties”.

Shortly after opening the USCCB’s biannual meeting in Fort Lauderdale yesterday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the USCCB and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, read out a statement that was highly critical of the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding asylum qualifications and suggested that it raises “right to life” issues.

The bishops’ condemnation came after Sessions on Monday reversed an immigration appeals court decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman, known as Ms. A.B., who had claimed domestic abuse in her home country.

The ruling by Sessions effectively overturned an Obama administration concession which allowed women to seek asylum in the US if they had credible claims of domestic abuse or had fled gang violence.

“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” DiNardo said. “The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection.”

He went on: “This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.”

DiNardo also hit out at the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which was announced in May and calls for prosecuting all those who cross the border illegally and separating children migrating with parents from their families.

He said: “Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together.”

DiNardo added: “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”

According to the Religion News Service, when he had finished reading aloud his statement, DiNardo asked bishops to clap if they approved of what he had said, and the room erupted in applause.

Later in the day, during a question and answer session about immigration, several bishops, including two from states along the US-Mexico border, came up with bold ideas for countering the policies.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, proposed that a group of bishops be sent to the border to inspect detention facilities where children are kept as a “sign of our pastoral concern and protest against the hardening of the American heart.” Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, suggested prayer vigils and similar “public gestures” in front of federal courthouses.

But Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona, went further, raising the possibility of implementing canonical penalties for Catholics “who are involved in this”, in a reference to children being separated from their families at the border. 

Canonical penalties can range from the denial of sacraments to excommunication, though RNS noted that Weisenburger did not specify what he intended beyond referring to sanctions that already exist for “life issues”.

Weisenburger said: “Canonical penalties are there in place to heal. And therefore, for the salvation of these people’s souls, maybe it’s time for us to look at canonical penalties.”

The new immigration policies have provoked widespread opposition from Catholics as well as other faith leaders.

Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley who has been praised by Pope Francis for her work with migrants, told USA Today that separating families is “inhumane” and “cruel”.

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