Immigration, in normal political circumstances, polarizes the electorate and generates more heat than light in the national media. But, in the early weeks of 2019, the immigration issue has literally shut down the United States government.
As of early January, President Donald Trump was refusing to sign any legislation to reopen the federal government, which had been closed since Dec. 22, unless Democrats in Congress agreed to provide $5 billion for the border wall the president promised his supporters in the 2016 campaign.
The Democrats, now in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, refused to fund what they regard as the president’s vanity project. The standoff shut down many key operations of the federal government, including several functions related to immigration enforcement.
“The shutdown is creating a further backlog in the system,” said Melissa M. Lopez, the executive director at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Inc., an agency that provides legal counseling and representation for migrants in and around El Paso, Texas.
Lopez told Our Sunday Visitor that the shutdown has effectively paralyzed the nation’s immigration courts. Many of those courts have been shuttered, and more than 400 immigration judges have received furlough orders, according to published reports.
While those courts remain closed, and the furloughed judges’ dockets continue to back up, hundreds of thousands of migrants who entered the United States without legal documents are having their cases postponed, which allows them to delay or dodge deportation orders.
“I think it’s incredibly ironic that (the president) is using the shutdown as a bargaining chip to get his wall when the immigration courts are getting more backed up and more clogged because of it,” Lopez said.
The paralysis in the immigration courts is emblematic of the turmoil and controversy that have accompanied the Trump administration’s hardline immigration rhetoric and border enforcement policies over the last two years.
In 2019, there is “a real chance of seeing some of the human consequences of the administration’s immigration policies coming home to roost,” said Ashley Feasley, the director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Given the consequences for the things the administration has put into motion, I think it’s really vital for lawmakers to come together and sit at the table,” Feasley told OSV.
This year, the U.S. Supreme Court may decide the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy that protected from deportation some young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children. In 2017, the Trump administration tried to dismantle the program, but that effort has been tied up in the courts. The administration has directly petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the matter. The high court is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to hear the case.
Also in 2019, as announced last year by the Department of Homeland Security, legal protections could expire for more than 250,000 immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Sudan and Haiti who have been allowed to live in the United States for decades under the Temporary Protected Status program.
“I think it’s very concerning that Congress hasn’t been able to act on this issue, given the number of people at stake and how important these individuals are in our communities around the country,” Feasley said.
“The only path forward I see is some kind of grand bargain where Democrats give (the president) some wall money in exchange for a solution for TPS and DACA beneficiaries. It’s a deal that can be struck, but unfortunately the extremes on both sides of this issue are controlling this (debate),” said Kevin Appleby, the international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Scalabrinian think tank.
Appleby told OSV that the White House could leverage Democrats’ interests in extending legal protections for migrants with the president’s desire to reduce immigration, but added that the president — who promised to “own” a government shutdown in televised remarks last month — has “painted himself into a corner.”
One area where Catholic immigration advocates are optimistic in 2019 is the possibility that House Democrats, newly empowered to issue subpoenas, launch investigations and convene hearings, will hold accountable the federal agencies tasked with carrying out the administration’s border enforcement policies.
“In the last two years, the amount of oversight that some of these agencies received had dwindled pretty significantly,” said Lopez, of Diocesan Migrant Refugee Services.
House Democrats may ask administration officials to explain the rationale behind the controversial 2018 “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in the forced separation of hundreds of migrant children from their parents, many of whom reportedly tried to seek asylum, which they have a legal right to do under international law.
There could be hearings into those family separations, as well as testimony from administration officials to explain in further detail how two young Guatemalan children died last month while in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.
“The deaths of those two Guatemalan children, to me, are the direct results of the politicization of our borders,” said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, an agency that seeks to bring a Catholic social teaching perspective to issues concerning the borderland region of El Paso, Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico. The institute released a report last year indicating that federal authorities have used El Paso as a pilot program for new enforcement strategies, including family separation.
“El Paso has long been the laboratory for both the criminalization of migrants and the militarization of our borders,” said Corbett, who echoed other Catholic immigration advocates in telling OSV that the president’s desired border wall does not reflect the reality that the overwhelming majority of migrants seeking to cross the border are families fleeing violence in Central America.
“Many of them are not just leaving these countries. They’re fleeing because their lives are at stake and their children are being threatened,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, director of the Global Leadership Program within the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame.
Father Groody told OSV that a well-functioning immigration system safeguards borders and allows the government to know who is entering the country.
“The problem here is we are conflating terrorists with people who [are] seeking protection because their lives are in danger,” said Father Groody.
Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.