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On immigration, DeSantis chooses Trumpism over Catholicism

Conservative Catholics who reject Church teaching on the dignity of migrants are taking their hostility to the next level.

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

(RNS) — In the early 1960s, a program called Operation Pedro Pan brought more than 14,000 Cuban youths to the United States to escape communism. Many were met by relatives, but about half were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, directed by Bryan O. Walsh, then a young Irish-born priest.

In the following six decades, a proliferation of Catholic nonprofits has sprung up to care for migrant children, including unaccompanied minors who arrive in this country.

One of those centers, operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, is named for Monsignor Walsh, who died in 2001. In December, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a campaign-style event on the “Biden Border Crisis” in which he ordered the state’s child-care regulator to stop issuing or renewing licenses to provide services to unaccompanied minors “unless there is a cooperative agreement between the state and federal government.”

Thinking little of migrant children and obsessed with attacking President Joe Biden, DeSantis frames the issue as one of safety for Floridians who must be protected from Christian charities that “knowingly or recklessly assist the Biden Administration in resettling illegal immigrants into Florida.”

Last fall, a Lutheran center had to scramble to relocate several dozen children after its license was inexplicably not renewed. Most of the children were under 13 years old.

Naturally, faithful Christians care more about helping vulnerable children than playing petty politics, and a broad array of faith leaders around Florida have called on the governor, a professed Roman Catholic, to reconsider his attacks on migrant children and those organizations that have helped them without incident or controversy until now.

But the governor’s fight against faith leaders became a national story this month when he provoked the Most Reverend Thomas Wenski, archbishop of Miami. DeSantis held an immigration roundtable in Miami on Feb. 7 in which he said that equating the Mexican border situation today with Operation Pedro Pan “quite frankly is disgusting. It’s wrong, it’s not even close to the same thing. They were fleeing a communist dictatorship that was persecuting them. Those were not illegal immigrants.”

Wenski pushed back, erroneously suggesting DeSantis had referred to migrant children themselves as disgusting: “Children are children, and no child should be deemed disgusting especially by a public servant.”

But considering the cruelty and cynicism of many conservative Catholics’ hostility to their own church’s teaching about the dignity of migrant children, this moment is instructive. And while the archbishop regrettably misconstrued the governor’s quote, the wish to further harm and traumatize vulnerable children just to score political points against Joe Biden is, to use DeSantis’ phrase, quite frankly disgusting.

Also disgusting is a pair of lawsuits against the government that a conservative political action committee called CatholicVote hopes will discredit Catholic relief organizations working with migrants. These lawsuits, targeting the Biden administration’s slow response to frivolous FOIA requests, are motivated by a sinister insinuation that Catholic relief organizations are profiteering from the chaotic situation at the border.

CatholicVote, which laughably claims to be “in full communion with and 100% faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church,” spent nearly $10 million trying to defeat Biden in 2020, even though one of its co-founders spoke favorably of Biden in 2015 and two others called Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States” in 2016.

This is the strange situation Catholics find themselves in politically today. While Republicans welcome Catholic support for their efforts to criminalize abortion, the party resists Catholic social teaching and advocacy on almost every other issue. In Florida, the state’s Catholic bishops were in Tallahassee several weeks ago to cheer restrictions on abortion rights soon to be passed by the state legislature — but they also asked DeSantis to reconsider his cruelty to unaccompanied minors. 

Wenski was likely irked by the fact that DeSantis’ entire approach to demonizing undocumented immigrants is a carefully orchestrated public-relations campaign. He used Miami’s American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora to draw his distinction between Pedro Pans (good) and people crossing the Southern border today (dangerous criminals).

DeSantis’ communications staff, which called Archbishop Wenski a liar, are functionally almost indistinguishable from campaign operatives. The archbishop said, “The governor has a powerful machine in South Florida capable of mobilizing (and manipulating) a segment of our community to advance his political agenda — but his bullying of kids also showed weakness.”

DeSantis may be a candidate for the presidency someday, but the archbishop rightly pointed out the weakness of a shrewd and talented politician who, for whatever strengths he possesses, has basically been a beta lackey to Donald Trump, despite the former president calling DeSantis “gutless” for refusing to simply admit he received a COVID vaccine booster and in whose shadow DeSantis’ national ambitions will continue to remain.

In the meantime, DeSantis may yet succeed in shuttering Catholic nonprofits like the Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh Children’s Village in Miami. One former Republican strategist told the AP, “They’ve decided they will gain more from going after innocent children with brown skin than they will lose by criticizing the archbishop.”

But Wenski went on to say that “magnanimity rather than mean-spiritedness is a ‘best practice’ in resolving our immigration challenges.” I doubt the governor will listen to His Most Reverend Excellency. For now it seems DeSantis has chosen Trumpism over Catholicism.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)