Against the tide of an anti-immigrant culture, Catholics minister to migrants and face heavy criticism. The following article was published in the September-October 2023 issue of NewsNotes.
The number of migrants and asylum seekers who have walked across the treacherous jungle known as the Darién Gap so far this year has surpassed the record total set in 2022, according to the government of Panama. Panama’s Director of Migration told reporters in Panama City on July 31 that more than 248,901 people have crossed the dangerous 165 miles connecting Colombia and Panama. The United Nations has warned that the number is on track to reach 400,000 by the end of 2023.
“We are facing a humanitarian crisis of major proportions,” the Panamanian official said.
An unknown number of people die each year in the Darién, from drowning, injuries, or attacks by organized crime groups. Traumatized survivors report seeing bodies in the rivers and along the mountainside. We shared the story of a Venezuelan migrant who crossed the Darién in the July-August 2023 issue of NewsNotes. “The desperation really gets to you,” the migrant said about his journey.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have called for the creation of more legal pathways to migrate to the United States in order to reduce the number of people taking risky journeys. The United States, Panama, and Colombia have responded by launching a joint campaign to stop migrants from making the crossing, but the details have been vague.
The three countries have also pledged to open new, legal pathways to the United States, but the qualifications are restrictive. For example, Venezuelans need to begin the asylum process from Venezuela and have a U.S. sponsor who commits to financially support an immigrant for two years.
The factors compelling people to flee their countries remain. “Multiple interconnected factors, ranging from limited access to fundamental rights and essential services, to the impact of violence and insecurity, continue to push people into displacement,” said UNHCR’s director for the Americas, José Samaniego.
For those migrants who reach the U.S. border and successfully submit a request for asylum, many are held for a time in detention centers run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On Aug. 16, National Public Radio (NPR) reported disturbing findings in ICE-run detention centers from 2017-2019 of “negligent” medical care, “unsafe and filthy” conditions, racist abuse of detainees, inappropriate pepper-spraying of mentally ill detainees, and other problems noted by inspectors hired by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
After their release from custody, many asylum-seekers are offered aid by faith-based organizations, like Catholic Charities USA. Because of this, a few Republican Congress members are threatening to reduce or eliminate their funding.
Back in December 2022, four House Republicans sent a letter to the head of Homeland Security, accusing Catholic Charities USA, Jewish Family Services, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service of breaking the law. The letter—from Congress members Lance Gooden and Jake Ellzey of Texas, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, and Andy Biggs of Arizona—included a warning: “Next Congress, we will continue to investigate your organization’s role in facilitating the border crisis, your potential violations of federal law, and your misuse of taxpayer funds.”
In its response, Catholic Charities USA said that its “humanitarian care (food, clean clothes, bathing facilities, overnight respite) is provided legally” and it “typically begins after an asylum-seeker has been processed and released by the federal government. Both U.S. and international law provide for the right to seek asylum at another country’s border.”
Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas sent a second letter in May, this time co-signed by Congress members Tom McClintock of California and Jim Jordan of Ohio. They accused the faith organizations that use federal funds to aid immigrants of creating an “incentive” for illegal immigration and demanded access to records about federal funding practices.
Rep. Gooden also sent an open letter to House colleagues that accused the faith groups of aiding illegal immigration. Gooden focused his frustrations on the federal Shelter and Services Program which reimburses organizations and local governments for offering certain aid to migrants.
Rep. Tiffany of Wisconsin said at a Judiciary Committee hearing in July, that Catholic Charities USA should be called to testify to explain “what they’re doing down on the border to facilitate this illegal immigration.”
In an email, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described the claims as “false and misleading” and publicly shared a Q&A, “Catholic Ministries Serving Migrants and Refugees,” available on their website. This resource explains Catholic social teachings related to migration, the Church’s ministries serving newcomers.
Faith in action:
Sign two action alerts from USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants Campaign.
- In solidarity with Afghans: https://mogc.info/JFI-Afghan
- Safeguard Children and Ensure Access to Religious Workers https://mogc.info/JFI-Religious