Catholic Church Teaching on Vulnerable Migrant Populations


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

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

January 2011


Protection of Vulnerable Migrant Populations

Migrants to the United States oftentimes face potential harms and hardships, from being prey to human traffickers and smugglers engaged in extortion and oftentimes violence to being exposed to perilous conditions in the search for safety and protection. Among the migrants most vulnerable to such harms are refugees, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied alien minors.

Refugees and asylees are aliens who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well‐founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees receive permission to immigrate to the United States while they are still abroad. Pursuant to the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 and based on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, any alien who is physically present in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry may apply for asylum, regardless of her current immigration status. Asylum seekers can submit a request for asylum either affirmatively or defensively. Asylum is granted after an individual's application has been processed and approved. Both refugees and asylees are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year of continuous presence in the United States as a refugee or asylee.

Each fiscal year, the president, in consultation with Congress, determines the number of refugees to be admitted to the US Refugee Resettlement Program. There is no similar cap on the number of asylum applications or asylum approvals. In 2008, only 23,000 principal applicants and their derivative family members were granted asylum. One third of these were fleeing persecution, or had a well‐founded fear of persecution, in China, Colombia, and Haiti. That same year, little more than 60,000 refugees were admitted to the United States through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Unaccompanied alien minors are children under 18 years of age who arrive in the United States without a parent or legal guardian and are in the temporary custody of federal authorities because of their immigration status.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) primary immigration enforcement agencies responsible for handling unaccompanied children. CBP apprehends, processes, and detains unaccompanied alien children intercepted along the U.S. borders and at ports of entry for attempting to enter the United States without authorization. In fiscal year 2009, CBP agents apprehended about 18,000 unaccompanied alien minors in border areas, while conducting routine checks at highway checkpoints, and performing border security enforcement operations. From March to September 2009, some 2,000 unaccompanied alien minors were apprehended at ports of entry. Between December

2008 and June 2010, in turn, nearly 4,000 unaccompanied alien minors were removed from the United States.


Catholic Social Teaching

The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has the duty to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him." Catholic Catechism, 2241.

In January 2003, the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter on migration entitled, "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope." In their letter, the Bishops stressed that vulnerable immigrant populations, including refugees, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied minors, should be afforded protection, without being placed in incarceration while their claims are being considered: "Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority." No. 37. "Because of their heightened vulnerability, unaccompanied minors require special consideration and care." No. 82. Asylum seekers and refugees should "have access to appropriate due process protections consistent with international law." No. 99.


USCCB Position

The U.S. Catholic Bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in enforcing immigration laws. However, USCCB believes that in the process of so enforcing those laws, the U.S. government must protect the human rights and dignity all migrants, with particular consideration for the most vulnerable of those migrants – including refugees, asylees, and unaccompanied alien minors.

The U.S. Bishops believe that U.S. immigration policy should prevent the unnecessary detention of asylum‐seekers, enhance due process protections, and revise parole criteria. Detention of asylum seekers should be limited to such cases where it is absolutely necessary for public health or safety, and even then, it should be in the least restrictive setting possible.

U.S. immigration policy should provide meaningful protection to asylum seekers by eliminating the one‐year filing deadline, providing appropriate screening by a qualified adjudicator for all migrants with a possible asylum claim, and eliminating mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The terrorism‐related grounds of inadmissibility should target actual terrorism; definitions and

interpretations of key terms should be revised and a more effective process of adjudicating exemptions should be implemented.

Finally, the U.S. Bishops believe that the conditions for processing and holding children upon apprehension should be appropriate for children – providing at a minimum adequate food and drinking water, medical assistance, clean and dry clothes, toilets and sinks, adequate temperature control and ventilation, supervision to protect them from others, and separation from unrelated detained adults ‐‐ and the least restrictive conditions possible. In accordance with the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008, all unaccompanied alien children apprehended at the border should be screened to determine whether they may be victims of trafficking or fear persecution. Further, unaccompanied alien minors removed from the U.S. should be protected from potential trafficking by ensuring their safe repatriation. U.S. policy should ensure that the best interests of the child are taken into account in all placement and release decisions made by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Children should be accommodated within a child welfare context.