WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hours before President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address Jan. 30, immigrant supporters said they were concerned with his administration’s “systematic targeting of vulnerable populations.”
In particular, they were bothered by the portrayal of migrant children, youth and families as gang members and criminals.
The president and Congress are haggling over a plan about how to fix some of the country’s most urgent immigration woes in which immigrants, legal and otherwise, have been caught in the middle of verbal fire.
The most urgent includes finding a solution for some 800,000 young adults brought into the country illegally as minors by their parents and who now face a March 5 deadline for the end of an Obama-era protection that granted them some legal relief to remain in the country.
In September, Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and charged Congress with passing a bill to save the program.
Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, moderated a Jan. 30 panel that included representatives of faith communities who say the administration and “anti-immigrant members of Congress are relentlessly targeting children and families in a cynical, cruel strategy that plays politics with the lives of the most vulnerable.”
The rhetoric being used to talk about the immigration deal is harmful to communities, they say, but that it also is dangerous to form policy based on what they consider scare tactics.
Trump and Republican members of Congress have asked for curtailing family reunification visas, which they refer to as “chain migration,” an end to lottery visas, also known as diversity visas, and want up to $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico in exchange for providing a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young adults who were brought illegally into the country as children.
In his address, Trump spoke of gang members who had entered the country using a “deadly loophole” and then went on to kill two teenage girls. The “loophole” must be closed, he said.
Along with money for the border wall, the administration keeps bringing up the vague term “loophole,” an apparent reference to curtailing policies for those seeking asylum and which would include turning away unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. fleeing violence.
The proposal is not just about a border wall and technology, said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, but it’s about changing long-standing U.S. policies that allow people in dire circumstances to come in.
The plan amounts to a “calculated attempt to undermine protections for unaccompanied minors, families and asylum seekers,” said Young, adding that those protections have long been carefully incorporated into U.S. law and policy over the years.
“The protection of people who arrive at our border seeking safe haven from war, human rights abuses and human trafficking has long been a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy,” she said. “These policies are not loopholes and they are not risks to U.S. border security, as some would characterize them. Instead, they are programs that represent the best humanitarian and democratic traditions of our country.”
But in the framework of negotiations over immigration policy, Young said, “we are concerned that this pillar of our immigration system may be sacrificed.”
Panelist Ashley Feasley, policy director for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said the Catholic Church long has made clear its support for those who seek refuge from dire situations in their home countries, particularly children.
“We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,” she said.
That’s why many took issue with the way the president portrayed immigrants in his first major address this year, painting them as criminals to be feared.
Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, whose diocese is on the border, tweeted Jan. 31, a day after the State of the Union address, that it was “so sad to hear unaccompanied children, majority of whom come here fleeing gang violence, described as a threat. False narrative!”
Appleby said “the president’s immigration proposal, as outlined in his speech, undermines core Catholic values such as family unity, the promotion and respect of diversity, and the protection of persons, including children, from persecution. Catholics and others of good will should reject his characterization of immigrants and refugees as criminals and security and economic threats. The Catholic voice is needed at the moment to defend the newcomer and dispel the fear being spread by this administration.”
Bishops, men and women and religious, and other Catholic personnel are witnessing the increasing fear and uncertainly the rhetoric causes, said Feasley. Families are afraid of being separated, mothers are afraid to attend church and send their children to school, she said.
“This is a direct result of some of the policies that have created fear in immigrant communities,” she said. “The Catholic Church and other faith groups wholeheartedly support Dreamers, but we urge Congress not to trade protections for one group over another. Vulnerable people are not people to be traded.”
There is no clear indication whether a bipartisan deal can be worked out but some like Appleby denounce what they see as the Trump administration pitting “one set of vulnerable children against another set of children,” and dehumanizing migrants in vulnerable situations to stoke fears.
What the president and GOP lawmakers have proposed, Appleby said, “would decimate families, spend wastefully on a border wall, diminish diversity … weaken protections for asylum seekers and unprotected minors. You might call this the nativist version of comprehensive immigration reform.”
“The fact is that over time, we will be sending these children back to their possible deaths and violating domestic and international laws as we do so,” he added.
He said the president would continue to “paint this as an invasion on our southern border. This is fake news. The reality is that these children are running for their lives. … Removing protections from these children is, simply put, cruel and not worthy of a nation such as the U.S.”