Catholic Bishops, Jewish Organization 'Disheartened' by Trump's Immigration, Refugee Orders

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Jewish Committee slammed orders issued by President Trump this week dealing with immigration enforcement, the border wall and refugee admittance.

Trump signed a pair of executive orders Wednesday to start "immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border" -- to be paid by taxpayers first, with reimbursement by Mexico later, the White House said -- and to prioritize removal of illegal immigrants who have been convicted or charged with a criminal offense as well as those deemed to have "committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense."

One order also said sanctuary cities "are not eligible to receive federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes."

Today's executive order suspends the refugee admissions program for 120 days and halves the annual number of refugees that would be allowed in the United States, and blocks all entrance of immigrants or visa-holders from countries of terror concern -- not listed in the order but believed to be Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia -- for 90 days.

Bishop Joe Vasquez, chairman of the USCCB committee on migration and bishop of the Diocese of Austin, said he was "disheartened" by the border wall announcement.

"This action will put immigrant lives needlessly in harm's way. Construction of such a wall will only make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers," Vasquez said. "Additionally, the construction of such a wall destabilizes the many vibrant and beautifully interconnected communities that live peacefully along the border."

"Instead of building walls, at this time, my brother bishops and I will continue to follow the example of Pope Francis. We will 'look to build bridges between people, bridges that allow us to break down the walls of exclusion and exploitation,'" he added.

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris noted "we are all related to those fortunate enough to have been admitted to this country – in my case, my mother, father, wife, and daughters-in-law – and we believe that other deserving individuals merit the same opportunities to be considered for permanent entry."

The AJC highlighted the current 18-24 month vetting process for refugee admission from war-torn areas with significant terrorist activity, and said freezes in refugee acceptance go against the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

"Refugees from Central America are, almost exclusively, women and children who are at risk of violence, sexual assault, and even death if they are returned to their home countries. They deserve compassion and a fair hearing," the AJC said in a statement.

"The terrorist threat attributed to refugees is a cruel and distracting fiction, especially when viewed against the actual incidence of mass violence committed with chilling frequency – in schools, churches, shopping malls and other venues – against Americans by Americans," the group added. "In the 14 years ending in October 2015, a period in which 784,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, there were exactly three arrests for planning terrorist activities (none of which occurred)."

The AJC said Trump is right to want to thoroughly vet refugees for national security threats, but added that "blanket suspensions of visas and refugee admission would suggest guilt by association – targeted primarily at Muslims fleeing violence and oppression."

Bishop Vasquez also called the promised increase in immigration enforcement and deportations "alarming."

"Everyday my brother bishops and I witness the harmful effects of immigrant detention in our ministries. We experience the pain of severed families that struggle to maintain a semblance of normal family life. We see traumatized children in our schools and in our churches," the bishop said. "The policies announced today will only further upend immigrant families."

Sister Donna Markham OP, PhD, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said the group would continue to advocate for and assist refugees and migrants regardless of country of origin.

“I am especially worried about the innocent children and mothers who have fled for their lives without support and are now caught in this regrettable and terribly frightening situation," Sister Donna said in a statement. "While I certainly appreciate the importance of vetting to insure the safety of our country, I also believe we must treat those who are most vulnerable with compassion and mercy and with hearts willing to be opened wide in the face of dire human need."