NEW YORK – U.S. Catholic immigration leaders celebrated a June 30 Supreme Court ruling that allows the Biden administration to end a controversial Trump-era border policy, but they have little optimism that the ruling will prompt any steps towards true immigration reform.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Migration chair told Crux. “We still need a well-organized process at the border that people can trust.”
The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), commonly known as Remain in Mexico, forces migrants at the southwestern U.S.-Mexico border to wait in Mexico until immigration officials rule on their asylum claims. The church and immigration advocates have long decried it as an ineffective and inhumane deterrent policy, citing unsanitary encampments and susceptibility to human trafficking, smugglers, and other crimes.
In a 5-4 ruling on the case, Biden v. Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “the government’s rescission of MPP did not violate” immigration law, noting also that the lower courts did not have the authority to mandate the program.
Roberts was joined in the majority by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and now-retired Justice Stephen Breyer. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett dissented.
In response to the ruling Dorsonville, Catholic Charities USA president and CEO Donna Markham, and Catholic Legal Immigration Network Executive Director Anna Gallagher said in a joint statement that the decision preserves the executive branch’s ability to reverse “untenable, illegal, and immoral policies regardless of who is in office.”
“Ours is both a nation of laws and a beacon of hope for many throughout the world,” the statement said. “This should inspire us to work toward just and humane responses to forced migration, not embrace failed policies of the past.”
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, the incoming USCCB Migration chair, said he was delighted by the ruling because “we’ll take whatever small progress that can come our way in the midst of a very broken system.” He said there is now an opportunity to create a system that allows for an orderly passage for those with a legitimate cause to come to the U.S. – whether that’s filling needed jobs or fleeing dire situations back home.
“We’ve been working with a system that’s using broken parts and band aids and baling wire to hold it together,” Seitz told Crux. “It really needs a comprehensive approach.”
“If we had an orderly system then we wouldn’t have situations such as what we saw in San Antonio this past week with the death of 50 people,” Seitz continued. “We can blame the traffickers as much as we want … but we need to have a system in which those types of people aren’t needed anymore and I think that would be possible if we would simply allow people who have a legitimate cause to be able to cross.”
MPP was announced by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielson on December 20, 2018, and began at the beginning of 2019. From January 2019 through the end of 2020 the Trump administration sent back across the border about 70,000 migrants under the program.
President Joe Biden promised to suspend the program on the campaign trail, and on June 1, 2021, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memorandum officially terminating the program.
Texas and Missouri promptly sued. On August 13, 2021, a district judge in Texas ruled that the Biden administration must make a “good faith” effort to reinstate the policy, which hinged on cooperation from the Mexican government. Mexico and the U.S. reached an agreement in December, 2021, that sought to make the program more humane. About 7,300 migrants have been enrolled in the Biden administration’s version of the program.
The question now is what happens next.
Marisa Limón Garza, senior director for advocacy and programming at the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, said she’s not entirely optimistic the Biden administration will end the program because in some ways it benefits them politically, and fits with a hemispheric approach to immigration that was expressed at the recent Summit of the Americas, and Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.
“A hemispheric response includes multiple governments taking action from each of their states throughout Latin and Central America, and that looks more like an externalization of asylum, which MPP is obviously a blueprint of,” Garza told Crux.
Beyond rescinding MPP, Garza said the Biden administration needs to put forth a visionary plan that addresses the realities of immigration. Possible actions include ending Title 42 and reopening the asylum process, and reimagining a humanitarian resource office that allows border patrol agents to stay in the field, and employs people dedicated to processing asylum claims.
“People are going to be on the move whether we like it or not, whether it’s politically expedient or not, whether it’s pretty or not; it’s just real and so how we the United States determine how we want to respond to that is what the Biden administration needs to outline,” Garza said. “We need the administration to take the reins and we need Biden to lean into the Catholic social thought that he knows and for him to practice that because that’s what we desperately need.”
Seitz said in the near term he hopes the Biden administration will first set up an orderly system to receive the hundreds of migrants stuck in Mexico because of MPP. Secondly, he said he hopes both the Biden administration and Congress will take a look at the entire system, though he isn’t confident that Congress can come together to enact any sort of change.
“I’m not confident at all because this has become too popular a political football for politicians and they haven’t shown the will to deal with these issues,” Seitz said.
Instead, Seitz said it’s the job of the faith community to make a difference.
“We really shouldn’t put all of our hope in the political system,” Seitz said. “Ultimately, it’s not going to change unless people’s hearts change and that falls back on our bailiwick and the church. That’s our job to soften people’s hearts, to really care about their brothers and sisters.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg