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Protecting Migrants Central to Catholic Teaching

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May 10, 2018

In recent months, the federal government has chosen to reverse an almost 30-year-old asylum program, leaving roughly 300,000 current residents of the US vulnerable to deportation by early 2020.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was established in 1990, initially to give escapees from the brutal civil war in El Salvador temporary leave to remain in the US. It is granted to people who have fled their home countries for the U.S. and are unable to return due to ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters or other humanitarian crises that have made daily life difficult and dangerous. TPS programs are currently in effect for ten countries, but more than 90 percent of recipients are from only three – El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. Salvadorans alone number around 200,000, or 60 percent, of all current TPS holders.


by Gráinne McEvoy, an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, who is currently writing a book on American Catholic social thought and immigration policy in the 20th century.


The Department of Homeland Security has determined that within the next two years, TPS for migrants from these three countries, in addition to smaller numbers from Nepal, Sudan, and Nicaragua, will be allowed to expire with no possibility of renewal. TPS has provided its recipients, some of whom arrived as teenagers, with protection from deportation and legal permission to work. Having lived as legal residents of the U.S., in many cases for more than twenty years, they are now embedded in American families, communities, and local economies.

Catholic Church leaders and migration agencies have called upon the Administration to not only renew and maintain the protections granted by TPS, but to find ways to give permanent residency to its recipients. In December 2017, representatives from Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the USCCB’s Committee on Migration and other Catholic migration agencies issued a joint letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in advance of her decision on the future of Salvadoran TPS holders. They stressed that a TPS extension was “both warranted and humane.”  Their reasons for doing so have deep historical roots grounded in papal instruction and biblical interpretation on migration, asylum and social justice.

From at least the early 1920s, a central tenant of Catholic social teaching on migration has been protection of the family. Catholic social thought holds that the family stands at the heart of a secure and just society, a guarantor of moral and socio-economic stability. When Congress enacted highly restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, Catholic social activists working in the field of immigrant reception noted with alarm that the new legislation was causing prolonged or indefinite separations of immigrant men already in the U.S. from their wives and children still abroad. Appealing to Congress for reform, Catholic bishops warned that the union between husband, wife, and child was “natural and sacred,” and must not be undermined by “any positive law of human making.” Since the 1920s, protection of the family unit has been the most consistent feature of the Catholic social teaching on immigration.

This remains the case for Catholic leaders today, mindful of the estimated 273,000 US citizen children of Salvadoran, Honduran and Haitian TPS holders. In their letter to Secretary Nielsen, Catholic leaders explained that “under Catholic doctrine, TPS holders, like all immigrants have the right to safety and to care for their families.” Elimination of the program presents TPS parents with an impossible choice: remain in the U.S. and live with the constant threat of deportation, or divide the family rather than bringing American-born children to home countries still afflicted with violence and economic insecurity. Either option, Catholic leaders warn, would undermine family stability.

An emphasis on the individual’s natural right to migrate has been a second consistent pillar of Catholic social teaching on migration. This principle came to the fore of American Catholic thought in the context of the refugee and Displaced Persons crises caused by the Second World War. Catholic leaders and thinkers drew upon papal teachings such as Exsul Familia, issued by Pope Pius XII in 1952. In an article for America Magazine that same year, Monsignor Edward Swanstrom of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s War Relief Services explained that God had created the earth’s rich resources to be “distributed and utilized in such a way that all people may enjoy at least the minimum of food, clothing and shelter.” The individual’s natural right to a basic standard of living, Swanstrom explained, obliged individual states to devise policies that paid attention to international human needs.

Catholic leaders have used this natural law understanding of migration in their responses to numerous refugee and migrant crises through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They are doing so now to challenge the elimination of TPS. In August 2017, a delegation traveled to Honduras and El Salvador. They later reported on the continued violence, displacement and economic instability in those countries, reminding the Administration that “all peoples have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, the right to migrate.”    

A third feature of Catholic teaching on migration is perhaps less widely understood: the right of states to control movement across their borders. A 1934 pamphlet on International Economic life by the Catholic Association for International Peace explained that this right ought to be exercised in line with a principle of “well-ordered charity:” enacting reasonable controls in order to protect the welfare and safety of the American people. In the course of the 20th century, Church leaders called upon the federal government to exercise control as regards, for example, the admission of Communist or other potential political subversives, and the exploitation of agricultural laborers from Mexico.

In winding down TPS, Church leaders believe that this decision is neither a reasonable exercise of the government’s right to control migration, nor is it in the interests of the American people. TPS recipients are woven into the fabric of American life as heads of households, homeowners, taxpayers, and vital members of the workforce, often concentrated in certain sectors, such as construction and the service industry, and in specific locales. California alone is home to approximately 49,000 Salvadoran TPS holders. Elimination of this program fails to protect the interests of hundreds of thousands of people living in the U.S. at present, whether TPS holders themselves, their U.S. citizen children, or members of the communities within which these families are so embedded.

As of now, the Department of Homeland Security has determined that the TPS program will draw to a close for almost all of its beneficiaries within the next two years. Catholic leaders, appealing to the Trump Administration to turn back this policy shift, have laid out a more compassionate and reasonable approach, rooted in principles of Catholic social teaching. Their position is deserving of the attention of both the nation’s leadership and its citizenry.