Here’s what ‘border bishops’ think about the migrant crisis
Baltimore, Md., Nov 17, 2023 / 18:20 pm
Several Texas bishops are expressing grave concern about the ongoing migrant crisis and are underscoring the need for “comprehensive immigration reform” as the situation is untenable for their dioceses.
More than 2.5 million illegal immigrants crossed the southern border last year. Texas, which shares a border with four different Mexican states and makes up well over half of the total U.S.-Mexico borderline, has borne the brunt of the ongoing migrant crisis.
The Texas bishops shared their concerns with CNA during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Plenary Assembly, which took place Nov. 13–16 in Baltimore.
While the bishops expressed different views about what exactly should be done, all said that the current U.S. immigration system is broken and has been causing incredible damage to the region and the lives of the migrants.
Here’s what the Texas bishops CNA spoke with had to say.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
“This is not fair, or just, or right,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston told CNA.
DiNardo said that “the immigration problem is affecting the state so intensely” and that the migrants themselves are often the ones who suffer the most.
“We have a completely distraught system of immigration. It’s not functioning right, so all kinds of horrors happen because of it,” DiNardo said. “Every other week, there’s a house or something in Houston, they open up and find 30 undocumented immigrants there in various stages of being enslaved.”
According to DiNardo, the sheer number of migrants illegally crossing the border has created a breeding ground for all manner of problems, including human trafficking, much of which is run through the city of Houston.
The city’s proximity to the border, DiNardo explained, has made it a “capital” for human trafficking, a problem he said will persist until something drastically different is done.
“It’s sad. Immigrants do come here with all manner of talents and desires and hopes,” he said. “You have to fix this immigration system. Until you do, we’re going to continue to have this.”
Though he said that he has “nothing but respect for our border agents,” who “process people as well as they can,” he said that there are days he believes the cartels “run what goes on at the border” and that “they’re in charge.”
DiNardo said that the cartels and traffickers “need to be dealt with” and that measures against them need to be “stern.”
Though he said it’s the government’s responsibility to deal with the cartels and crime at the border, he said it is the responsibility of citizens to get the government to act.
“Until the federal level really gets the sense that people want a change, they’re not going to change. It’s too convenient to put forward wild plans that will never be realized,” he said. “If you’ve seen the way the Democratic and Republican parties work, for instance, at the federal level, it seems to be they’re reduced to talking points on all issues; it doesn’t get so far.”
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio told CNA that while every country “has a right to have secure borders,” what’s missing in the country’s immigration system is the recognition that migrants “are human people” and “have human dignity.”
“Jesus said, ‘Love God and love neighbor.’ So that’s our foundation in our relationship with migrants and refugees,” García-Siller said.
“As a Church, as members of the body of Christ, we believe that we have to do whatever is in our power and possibilities to help them.”
Central to reforming the immigration system, García-Siller said, is helping to alleviate the causes leading people to leave their home countries in the first place.
García-Siller said the border issue has become so politically charged because rather than Christianity or the social doctrine of the Church, “politics is directing almost every area of our society, including the conscience of our people.”
According to García-Siller, the city of San Antonio has been receiving an average of 1,500 migrants every day for the last month. That’s up from the 1,000 daily migrants it has been receiving since August.
Though he said his archdiocese and other nongovernmental agencies have been able to cooperate with authorities to give aid to the migrants, he doesn’t know how much longer they can sustain those numbers.
“Until today, I can tell you that we had been able to do it and do it well, treating them properly,” he said. “But we need the support of the city, of the state and the federal government.”
“We’re trying to do what is lacking; how long we can do it, I cannot tell you.”
Bishop Mark Seitz, Diocese of El Paso
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso also holds the influential role of chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, which makes the bishops’ official policy recommendations to send to Congress and the president.
“Our Holy Father has pointed out that we bishops need to be involved in immigration,” Seitz said. “And from what I hear from my brother bishops, I think there’s great interest in the topic and tremendous support for the responsibility we have as a Church to care for immigrants.”
“The problem very often is that we don’t know — just like so many citizens — we don’t know how we can help.”
“So, one of the roles that I have in the conference,” Seitz explained, “is to see if we can find ways to inform people better and to show them ways that they can really make a difference in the lives of those who have come among us.”
In El Paso, Seitz said his diocese operates five shelters and regularly collaborates with governmental and nongovernmental agencies to meet the needs of the record-high migrants who have come through his diocese.
The diocese’s shelters have been consistently full as the El Paso sector of the border has thousands of crossings daily.
Despite the numbers, Seitz has advocated for more lenient border policies, criticizing recent decisions made by the Biden administration to implement certain restrictions, some of which were originally imposed under the Trump administration.
To Seitz, comprehensive immigration reform involves establishing “a more orderly system” in which “there are clear lines” and “people are carefully vetted.” He also believes reform needs to be aimed at helping alleviate the root causes of mass migration.
“We as a nation, the United States, have a responsibility, certainly as Christians, but even as a nation, one can see where we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to assist those sending countries to overcome some of the things that are causing this instability and to do it in a way that respects the rights of the people there,” he said.
The U.S. currently devotes $25 billion to border security, according to a March statement by the White House. Seitz said that “if even some of that were directed more towards the situation in sending countries and investing that in ways that really have an impact, we think we could change considerably the situation, the numbers of people who are seeking refuge.”
“Frankly,” Seitz added, “we bear some responsibility because of the fact that we’re the main ones that are supporting organized crime in these countries by our use of illegal drugs.”
Bishop James Tamayo, Diocese of Laredo
Bishop James Tamayo of Laredo, a city with a population that is over 95% Hispanic, said that migrants’ “concerns and their realities are something that can’t wait.”
“People are being killed, people are being threatened, people have no food, no educational opportunities or families.”
Tamayo said that he is grateful for how the faithful in his diocese have responded to the crisis, helping to give temporary shelter, food, and help getting to their U.S. sponsors.
Though Tamayo said that he understands many people are fearful about the record numbers crossing the border, he said that “in the Diocese of Laredo, I’ve always reminded our people [to] look at your ancestors and where did they come from? Where are your cultural roots, and then what have they contributed?”
“Look at the way we live today. Look at our society that we’re living in. Who built this up? What gave you the opportunities? It was those same immigrants that settled here that cared not only for their family and themselves, but for the community, and it opened up doors for all of us.”
Bishop Michael Olson, Diocese of Fort Worth
“At the heart of it,” said Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, “is compassion, but also a sense of justice.”
“You can’t talk about the migration and refugee problem without talking about human trafficking,” he said, explaining that his diocese sits right amid “the main thoroughfare for human trafficking.”
Though Olson said that his diocese has worked extensively to help protect unaccompanied migrant children from trafficking by reuniting them with their parents, he believes that the first step to solving the issue is ensuring that there is a secure border.
“We need a sound border,” he said. “The Holy Father spoke to us [Texas bishops] … and he said: ‘Where the devil is most active today is in human trafficking, this slavery, this trade.’”
“We have to hold ourselves accountable and politicians accountable because there’s been no incentive for politicians from either party to make legitimate changes,” he explained.
“The Church is very pro-immigrant, especially here in the United States,” he went on. “The problem is, without a border and without a clear process, we can’t serve anybody.”