NEW YORK — Bishops from El Salvador are joining bishops from the United States in the nation’s capital this week, in an effort to remind government officials of what will happen if over 200,000 Salvadorans lose their protected status under U.S. immigration law and are deported to their home country.
In January of this year, the Trump administration announced that it would revoke the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for El Salvador, a program that allows for individuals to reside and work in the U.S. if their home country is under threat from natural disaster, violence, or other extraordinary circumstances.
The U.S. bishops have previously condemned the decision as “heartbreaking.” This week’s delegation of Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, president of Caritas El Salvador; Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas, archbishop of San Salvador; Bishop William Irahera, bishop of Santiago de Maria; and Bishop Elías Samuel Bolaños Avelar, vice-president of Caritas El Salvador; accompanied by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Auxiliary Bishop Mario Eduardo Dorsonville-Rodríguez of Washington; in some respects fulfills a pledge to stand in solidarity with TPS beneficiaries as they navigate uncertain legal futures.
The visit is being organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The bishops will spend four days in the Washington, D.C. area speaking to congressional representatives, State Department officials, and other political leaders, encouraging a long-term solution for TPS beneficiaries, as well as spending time participating in community dialogues, and providing spiritual care for the nation’s largest TPS beneficiary population.
Ashley Feasley, director of policy for MRS, told Crux that there is a three-fold purpose for the delegation’s visit.
“First, to stand in solidarity with Salvadorans who are hurting and anxious about the TPS decision- to provide them accompaniment and pastoral support. Secondly, to advocate with Congress to remind them about what Temporary Protected Status is- why it’s needed and why TPS holders, especially those who have lived here for a long time and integrated into our communities and have U.S. Citizen children, need protection.”
Finally, she said, another aim is “to engage the State Department about the need for development, reintegration services for El Salvador and for the region. To ensure that we are looking at the U.S. government Central American strategy through protection, development and a human lens — not just an enforcement lens.”
Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, a legislative specialist at CRS, said that the joint efforts of Church leaders from the two nations sends a message that “the Church is in unity with you wherever you are.”
TPS was established by the U.S. Congress in 1990 with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush. El Salvador received TPS designation in 2001, following two major earthquakes that devastated the country and from which they are still recovering.
Since Congress has not considered legislation related to TPS in 30 years, part of the reason for this week’s visit is to educate lawmakers about what’s at stake.
Wenski — who has long been an advocate for the program, as his home diocese of Miami has the largest Haitian population in the U.S., and has also had their TPS designation revoked — said that there could be a silver lining to the Trump administration’s decision to end the program, if it means Congress steps up to provide a permanent fix.
“TPS has left these people in a limbo. They’re neither fish nor fowl. They’re not illegal immigrants but they’re not legal immigrants either, because they have work permits, they cannot adjust their status to permanent residency, and because of that, they cannot travel,” he said.
“If they went back to their homeland for a funeral, for example, they would not be able to come back to the United States. This has extended itself for a couple of decades now,” Wenski told Crux.
He said that he hopes government officials will listen to the firsthand accounts of the El Salvadoran bishops this week that the country “is in no position to receive a massive influx of deportees because of the fragile social situation in their country.”
In recent years, the rhetoric over immigrants — and El Salvadoran migrants, in particular — has been very divisive, and both Wenski and Gerschutz-Bell criticized President Donald Trump for language, they argued, which has suggested most immigrants contribute to gang violence in this country.
“Most people are not very well informed on the intricacies of immigration policies,” said Wenski. “When the president underscores the issue of gang violence, it can distort people’s understanding of immigrants across the board.”
“One of the things that no one remembers is that those gangs did not form in El Salvador…all those gangs have their origins in Los Angeles in the 80s and the 90s,” he continued.
“They didn’t get involved in those gangs because they are Salvadorans, they got involved in those gangs because they were teenagers growing up in inner city Los Angeles. Those gangs were, in many ways, an American creation and they resulted in a failure of America to provide a future of hope for their inner city kids,” Wenski said.
Gerschutz-Bell offered a similar reminder.
The truth, she told Crux, is that “these youth are fleeing violence and poverty; some are forcibly recruited by gangs in Central America. They are not the gang members; they are fleeing the gang members! They flee to an America that made its reputation for greatness on welcome, opportunity, and individual protection.”
As part of their visit, the bishops will celebrate a mass at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia, which holds claim to the nation’s oldest El Salvadoran community.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington will join the celebration, which he described as an opportunity to “lift up the people of El Salvador” and “recognize their presence” within the diocese.
Burbidge told Crux that the diocese is home to at least 125,000 El Salvadoran Catholics and likely more, who “contribute greatly to our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and especially our parish communities.”
“We rely on people from El Salvador to help us welcome the newcomer that comes into our diocese and only speaks Spanish,” he added.
He said that this week’s visit, while having political ramifications, is ultimately pastoral in nature.
“As a bishop, we’re entrusted with the care of the flock of the people of God and that involves the whole person—body, soul, and spirit,” said Burbidge. “So the bishops, of course, from El Salvador and the U.S., all that we seek to do is lift up the dignity of each human person.”
“There’s a great need in this nation for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Burbidge.
While he maintained that bishops don’t get involved in the partisan affairs and are there to offer moral principles, not political ones, he insisted that “we have to be the voice of the people encouraging the dignity of the human person to be revered and that includes all God’s people without exception.”
“That’s not even an option, that’s a mandate — especially for bishops responsible for teaching the gospel,” he concluded.