PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Two years into President Joe Biden’s term, Catholic immigration leaders wonder what happened to his campaign trail pledge to create a more fair and humane immigration system. They say while some positive steps have been taken, the administration has been slow to act, increasingly political, and reliant on recycled ineffective policies.
Biden announced his re-election bid on April 25, saying the “battle for the soul of America” wages on. All the while, an unprecedented border crisis persists and is expected to worsen in the coming weeks, with experts saying the administration’s plan to handle it isn’t adequate.
To Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio, addressing the crisis needs to be one of Biden’s top priorities if the soul of the nation is truly at stake, as the president said it is.
“[Biden’s] talking about the soul of America. That’s been his thing. Well, there’s nothing closer to the soul of America than migration. That’s what gave us our soul,” said Bishop DiMarzio. “The soul of America is at stake here, and it’s at stake because we’re not welcoming people who are in distress.”
Both on the campaign trail and early into Biden’s term, he often maligned President Donald Trump’s use of Title 42, a controversial measure that allows the immediate expulsion of migrants on the basis of COVID-19 pandemic precautions. Biden, however, has relied on the policy continuously as the situation at the southern border has worsened.
Title 42 is now slated to end on May 11, after the Biden administration sought to end it last year, and a federal judge stepped in and kept it in place for a time. The Biden administration has announced its plan to handle the expected increase in migration thereafter, but those on the ground, as well as immigration experts, have criticized it as misguided.
Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute — a faith-based immigration advocacy organization that does humanitarian work in both El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — said immigration organizations at the border are “all very nervous.”
“I can tell you that we’re not prepared. … The administration has been slow to make sure that there are flexible resources to be able to deal with the … expected arrivals at the border after Title 42,” Corbett said. “I’m worried.”
The Biden administration’s plan includes efforts to open migrant processing centers across Latin America, expand legal pathways for migrants from certain countries — which advocates have applauded — and expedited removal regulations that allow for the rapid deportation of migrants who don’t use a legal pathway to enter the U.S. or don’t seek asylum or other protection in a country through which they traveled to get here.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration Committee chair, has previously applauded the expansion of legal pathways but loathed the reliance on enhanced expedited removal policies. Bishop Seitz declined a Tablet request for an interview.
“We welcome the announcement of new legal pathways to the United States, but it is difficult for us to consider this progress when the same pathways are contingent on preventing those forced to flee their native land from availing themselves of the right to seek asylum at our border,” Bishop Seitz said in a statement earlier this year.
Bishop DiMarzio noted, however, that the plan to process migrants in other countries and have them seek protection there first, may actually be a positive action to stop migrants from making a treacherous journey all the way to the United States.
“Not every migrant can get asylum,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “You have to try and get people to stop taking all of this risk.”
Once Title 42 is lifted, Biden immigration officials and border groups all report an expectation that as many as 10,000 undocumented migrants could cross the border each day, in addition to already record numbers that have exacerbated the crisis in recent years.
Last fiscal year, border agents encountered a record-high 2.4 million undocumented migrants at the southern border.
Through the first six months of Fiscal Year 2023, border agents encountered migrants at an even higher rate, with more than 1.5 million encounters.
Along with the continued use of Title 42, immigration leaders highlighted how the Biden administration has not gotten the nation any closer to comprehensive immigration reform and has seemed to shift its focus away from addressing the root causes of immigration.
Corbett said Hope Border Institute worked with the Biden administration early on, but “since then, it’s clear politics have entered the equation, and the administration has become much more timid.
“They started with some really good aspirations, but they lost focus,” Corbett said. “Now, there’s a lack of engagement with local communities to produce sustainable economic development. They need to make better investments in the region. They’ve lost the plot.”
Anna Marie Gallagher, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network — an organization that works to expand access to immigration legal services — also highlighted that the Biden administration hasn’t made strides to help migrants access immigration legal service providers once they’re in the United States or addressed a significant backlog on work permits.
“It’s interesting because they have a lot of work to do, and it’s hard … but if you say you’re going to do something, and you’re committed to these Catholic social values, and this is what you ran your campaign on, these are things I think you could have done,” Gallagher said.
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of New York, who has been on the front lines of the city’s response to buses of migrants coming from Texas, said another issue is the federal government leaving the issue to individual states and localities.
Msgr. Sullivan said he’s had conversations with the federal government, “but there has been an incredible lethargy in taking steps needed, which is very, very disappointing.
“The immigration issues that we have, and migrants coming to the United States, cannot be left with individual states alone to deal with,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “There needs to be leadership on the federal level to deal with the issues, and the reality is we have had very, very limited response from the federal government — neither from Congress nor the executive branch.”
Each immigration expert noted that while the Biden administration has, in many ways, dropped the ball on immigration policy, they’re not solely to blame.
Biden did propose a comprehensive immigration reform bill on his first day of office that was promptly shot down by Congress, which because of its divisions, is unlikely to move any comprehensive immigration policy forward.