The Catholic Church's Teaching on Immigration Enforcement


Migration and Refugee Services/Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

January 2011


Enforcement of Immigration Laws


U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), both housed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are responsible for the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. The former is charged with securing U.S. borders, preventing terrorists from entering the United States and facilitating legal trade and travel. The latter is charged with enforcement of over 400 federal laws through investigation functions, detention, removal, and intelligence responsibilities, and the U.S. Federal Protective Service.

Between fiscal years 2004 and 2009, CBP’s budget increased 82 percent, from $6 billion to $10.1 billion. Along with this substantial budgetary increase, CBP saw a 35 percent increase in the number of border patrol agents and support persons during that same period. CBP expanded expedited removal to include enforcement between ports of entry; implemented Operation Streamline, criminalizing unauthorized border crossing; and halted the practice of catch and release of unauthorized immigrants, resulting in their uniform detention. And, CBP spent billions on strengthening the technology and infrastructure to monitor borders between ports of entry.

In fiscal year 2009 alone, ICE’s budget was just under $6 billion. ICE has focused its resources on immigration enforcement in the worksite through employer verification of the immigration status, worksite raids, and sanctions against employers of unauthorized immigrants. At the same time, ICE has steadily augmented the number of unauthorized immigrants it has removed – ranging between 300,000 and 400,000 annually over the past several years. Meanwhile, ICE has expanded the detention of immigrants in removal proceedings, with some 67 percent of those detained housed in state prisons and local jails despite being held pending civil proceedings.

Despite all of these enforcement‐driven efforts, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States today hovers around 11.2 million. And, the number of unauthorized entering the country on an annual basis ranges between 300,000 and 500,000 men, women, and children.

Because of this, certain state and local governments, upset with the federal government’s perceived inability to meaningfully curtail the inflow of unauthorized immigrants to the United States despite exponentially increasing budgetary resources and policy mandates to do so, have decided to take matters into their own hands. Select states have passed restrictive immigration enforcement laws of their own in an effort to reign in unlawful immigration in the United States.


Catholic Social Teaching

Opponents of both lawful and unauthorized immigration often inaccurately criticize the Catholic Church as supportive of "open borders" in an attempt to discredit the strength of Church’s voice in the immigration policy dialogue.

In the pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recognized the right of the sovereign to control and protect its borders, stating: "we accept the legitimate role of the U.S. . . . government in intercepting undocumented migrants who attempt to travel through or cross into [the country]." The U.S. Bishops made clear, however, that ". . .[w]e do not accept . . . some of the policies and tactics that our government has employed to meet this. . .responsibility." No. 78.

In Strangers No Longer, the U.S. Bishops made clear that despite the sovereign’s right to control its borders and engage in enforcement of immigration laws, the "human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected." The Bishops declared that "[r]egardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected . . . Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary." No. 38.


USCCB Position

The U.S. Catholic Bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in enforcing immigration laws. However, USCCB opposes "enforcement only" immigration policies and supports instead comprehensive immigration reform which includes an enforcement component. In Strangers No Longer, the U.S. Catholic Bishops outlined the elements of their proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. These include: earned legalization; a future worker program; family‐based immigration reform; restoration of due process rights; addressing root causes of migration; and enforcement measures which adhere to the following three principles.

Targeted. U.S. enforcement interventions and resources should be narrowly‐tailored, focusing on the dangerous and criminal elements. U.S. enforcement should not rely upon ethnic and racial profiling and should not be so overly broad as to curtail basic rights. Improvements in intelligence, information sharing, and border security technology would help ensure that those who are most dangerous—smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists‐‐‐are intercepted.

Proportional. Enforcement of immigration laws should not feature unnecessary penalties or rely upon unnecessary force. Immigration enforcement officers and border patrol agents should receive intensive training on appropriate enforcement tactics and the appropriate use of force. Border enforcement policies should not drive migrants to risk their lives or violate the due process rights of migrants. Because immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, the civil enforcement of immigration laws should remain in the hands of the federal

government not transferred further to local or state law enforcement authorities whose role is maintaining public safety and fighting crime.

Humane. In any enforcement action, the human rights and dignity of the person should be preserved and respected to the greatest extent possible. U.S. immigration policy should prioritize family reunification and protect vulnerable populations. Unauthorized immigrants should not be detained for lengthy periods of time or intermingled with violent offenders. U.S. immigration policy should prioritize the use of alternatives to detention for those who do not threaten public safety or national security. U.S. immigration policy should provide meaningful protection to refugees and asylum seekers by eliminating the one‐year filing deadline, providing appropriate screening by a qualified adjudicator for all asylees, and eliminating mandatory detention of asylum seekers among other measures. And, the conditions for processing and holding children upon apprehension should be appropriate and the least restrictive possible. Children should be accommodated within a child welfare context