NEW YORK — When President Joe Biden and Pope Francis meet on Friday, some U.S. immigration advocates hope the pontiff can plant seeds for change in U.S. immigration policy.
Biden campaigned on promises of immigration reform through both executive and legislative action, but nine months into his presidency little change has happened. U.S. Catholic bishops and advocates have consistently called for two executive actions — the termination of Title 42 and the Remain in Mexico policy.
Earlier this week Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso made the latest plea against the Remain in Mexico policy, telling the Catholic Legal Immigration Network that it “causes needless suffering for those forced to flee who have come to our doorstep in need of protection.” The policy forces asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border to wait in Mexico until their case is decided.
Biden suspended the policy early in his presidential term. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, recently ordered the Biden administration to reinstate the policy, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it will begin to enforce in November.
Title 42 is a border policy that allows the immediate expulsion of migrants and limits their right to seek asylum on public health grounds. Biden hasn’t wavered on its use despite his promise to terminate it. At the end of September, more than 150 Catholic organizations renewed the call for the policy to end, writing to Biden that it “fails to respect the dignity of migrants and refugees and honor God’s image in every human person.”
The final Fiscal Year 2021 statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, last updated on Oct. 25, show a total of 1.04 million expulsions under Title 42.
“I hope that Biden walks out of that meeting troubled by the moral cost of what he’s chosen to do, and not do, in regards to immigration in his almost year now in the presidency,” Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, told The Tablet. “I think that Pope Francis can invite Biden to take a courageous stance and frankly a hopeful stance to say it really is possible to improve conditions for migrants at the border and to respect the right to asylum.”
Williams noted the importance of reminding Biden of the Catholic perspective.
“Probably the most important overarching message is to remind President Biden that these families are our modern holy families and that when we welcome the stranger we welcome Jesus and really couch that in Catholic moral terms,” Williams said.
Even though Title 42 and Remain in Mexico continue, those in favor of the policies and stricter border security, in general, haven’t been satisfied either. They charge that Biden’s rhetoric has led to the historic rise of undocumented migrants at the border and that the aforementioned policies haven’t been strictly enforced given the number of undocumented migrants entering the country.
Through fiscal year 2021, CBP encountered over 1.7 million undocumented migrants at the Southwest U.S.-Mexico Border, according to the latest statistics, though that number could be misleading because a number of those were repeat crossers. There were about 458,000 encounters in fiscal year 2020 and about 977,000 encounters in fiscal 2019.
CBP saw the most encounters of 2021 in July and August, with 213,593 and 209,840 respectively. The number of encounters dropped for the first time in September to 192,001, according to the data.
Williams described Biden as in a “moment of paralysis” that “affects him politically on both sides” when it comes to his border decisions.
“I don’t want Biden just walking out of the meeting thinking that the border’s a problem to solve, but walking out of the meeting with a renewed understanding and conviction that these are my brothers and sisters at the border and what does that mean for me when I want to make policy,” Williams said.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told The Tablet he hopes Pope Francis mentions the recent treatment of Haitians in Del Rio, where approximately 15,000 were camped under the border city’s international bridge at one time, and the Biden administration subsequently flew thousands back to the Caribbean nation.
“That was a travesty,” Archbishop Wenski said. “Biden has been saying there’s no crisis on the border since he took office and then when 10,000 black Haitians show up suddenly there’s a crisis. I think he could be held to account for that.”
Archbishop Wenski added that he doesn’t expect anything concrete to come from Friday’s meeting between the world leaders, but acknowledged its importance.
“It’s very important, but there’s no treaty to be signed between the two of them. I think this is a meet and greet, but an important one,” Archbishop Wenski said. “It’s good that they have it because that plants seeds and those seeds will flower later.”
The meeting will be the fourth between Pope Francis and Biden. The previous three took place when he was Vice President under President Barack Obama.
Other than immigration, Archbishop Wenski suspects Pope Francis will largely focus the discussion on global issues such as the problems in the Middle East. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Oct. 26 said “they’ll be talking about climate and migration and income inequality and other issues that are very top of mind for both of them.”