(RNS) — When four Republican congressmen accused Catholic Charities USA of violating federal law by providing food, clothing and shelter to migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, the organization quickly fired back, calling the allegations “incredibly disturbing,” “fallacious and factually inaccurate.”
Instead of endangering people, as the lawmakers suggested in a Dec. 14 letter that accuses Catholic Charities USA of “aiding and abetting illegal immigrants,” the humanitarian work “is mandated by the gospel” and saves lives by caring for “vulnerable people on the move,” a statement issued by the organization declared.
Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations for Catholic Charities USA, found the lawmakers’ claim insulting, saying it “threatens the core ministry of the church.” The urgency of the organization’s response was necessary because, Granado said, the work of Catholic Charities “has traditionally been met with a great level of respect by Republicans and Democrats alike.”
“We have not seen such a level of direct … attack against Catholic Charities USA,” Granado told Religion News Service. “We will continue to do this work. We will not apologize for it. The gospel compels us to do so. If that’s unpopular with certain members of Congress, so be it.”
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Organizations advocating for immigrant rights along the U.S.-Mexico border, many of which are faith-based groups and churches providing shelter, say they will not be intimidated by lawmakers who are requesting investigations into nongovernmental organizations accused of “facilitating the movement of illegal immigrants across our border.”
The same day Catholic Charities received the letter — which was signed by U.S. Reps. Lance Gooden of Texas, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Jake Ellzey of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked the state attorney general to investigate NGOs that he says have assisted with illegal border crossings near El Paso.
The scrutiny comes as border towns have been preparing for an onslaught of new arrivals with pandemic-era immigration restrictions expected to expire sometime soon. The public health rule, known as Title 42, was supposed to end Wednesday (Dec. 21), but U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts ordered a temporary hold.
Some advocates, such as Catholic activist Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, said these tactics not only raise questions about abuse of office, but about religious liberty.
“We do this as an expression of our faith,” Corbett said. “We do this as an expression of our commitment to building a more just world because we are people of faith.”
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Pedro De Velasco, director of education and advocacy of Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic group that advocates and provides humanitarian assistance for migrants in Nogales, Arizona, as well as in Nogales across the border in Mexico, said that organization has not received any such inquiry into its scope of humanitarian assistance.
To De Velasco, these queries are meant to “raise doubts in the work that NGOs are doing for the migrants” — work the government should be doing, he added.
“There’s a need because the U.S. government is not upholding the international and domestic laws of people accessing asylum. People are stranded. They’re stuck in Nogales and all across the border,” he said.
“It’s complicated because we know that (in) a lot of these Republican states, these conservative states, they call themselves Christian and we are currently in the Advent season. … Many Christians seem to forget that Christ is truly present in the migrants that are stranded on the other side of the border, begging us to open the doors to him,” De Velasco said.
Granado said Catholic Charities USA first received a similar letter from the lawmakers in February, asking for information “about our alleged role and work with the administration.” Granado said the organization didn’t respond because it was under no obligation to do so.
The letter this month was different, requiring Catholic Charities to preserve all information concerning “expenditures submitted for reimbursement from the federal government related to migrants encountered at the southern border.” Catholic Charities was urged to comply or risk being compelled to do so “by congressional subpoena next year,” according to the letter.
Granado said there has been no further communication with the lawmakers since Catholic Charities issued its statement Dec. 14, where it noted that the federal government was “fully responsible” for determining who enters the country.
Humanitarian care, which includes bathing facilities and overnight respite, is provided legally, the organization said, adding that it “typically begins after an asylum-seeker has been processed and released by the federal government.”
For Granado, it’s important to note “this is not Catholic Charities USA against the Republican Party.”
“There are many Republicans who strongly value the work of Catholic Charities and look to faith-based entities like our own, and other groups in civil society, to assist the public sector, to assist government in serving people … because government cannot do everything alone,” Granado said.
Rabbi Ilana Schachter witnessed firsthand the role of faith-based groups along the border when she visited the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez area earlier this month with a delegation of rabbis organized by HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
“What we’re seeing right now at the border is a lot of suffering,” said Schachter, who serves at Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights, New York. “People are going through extraordinary lengths to put themselves and their families out of direct threat and danger.”
Schachter, who is involved with interfaith work in New York, said she saw many Catholic shelters “just doing this work, volunteer based, and out of the goodness of their heart because of what their faith tradition teaches.”
“It has to do with human dignity … and that’s a tenet of my faith as a rabbi, but I would hope that would be a universal tenet,” she said.