Republican senators have returned from their August recess with a familiar goal of tightening border security. This time, however, customary debates over immigration policy have taken an ugly anti-religious turn.
Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a version of the Secure The Border Act passed earlier this year in the House. Along with familiar proposals like border walls and security patrols, the bill would block funding for groups that provide humanitarian aid to migrants at the border. The proposal to undercut this humanitarian work is the latest development in a charge by congressional Republicans against an unlikely foe: religious charitable organizations.
Earlier this year, a group of House Republicans took aim against Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish groups for supposedly “facilitating the border crisis” by refusing to let migrants suffer once they enter the country. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) accused these groups of “running the pipeline to our border” and engaging in “human trafficking.”
He called for the head of Catholic Charities to “explain what they’re doing down on the border.” Tiffany’s remarks echoed those of Texas Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas), who called Catholic Charities “the biggest villain of them all” and claimed that “the Catholic bishops” are complicit in a “ruse” to spur illegal immigration.
These are jarring accusations made only more perplexing by the details. What Catholic Charities is “doing down on the border” is not exactly villainous: Its staff and volunteers offer respite and basic human needs like food, clothing, medical attention and temporary shelter to vulnerable migrants after they have been processed by border authorities and as they await further proceedings. They also happen to do this work with the support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through a program that was expanded under Presidents Trump and Biden to address these glaring needs.
Other organizations also provide this aid, yet religious groups have found themselves uniquely targeted in these political crosshairs. They have been threatened with congressional investigation and criminal prosecution. Now they stand to be defunded.
This is unfortunately familiar ground. Religious communities are often marginalized, misunderstood and outnumbered, so they make easy targets when politicians need someone to blame for complicated problems like the spread of COVID-19 or the rise of terrorism. It is easy to see what is behind the latest accusations: There are political points to be scored by being uncompromising on the border. Those points apparently outweigh any that might be lost by bullying a few religious groups.
This is a callous political calculation and a sobering reminder of how fundamental rights like religious freedom can succumb to baser demands in electoral politics. It is also a calculation that other members of the Senate should soundly reject.
There is no reason for politicians who favor strong borders to harbor animosity toward religious groups that help care for people who enter our country. The complaint is that there is a crisis at our border. Fair enough. But the good works of religious groups like Catholic Charities did not cause that crisis, and we should be grateful that they help alleviate some of the human suffering it has wrought.
Nor is it any scandal that the federal government has partnered with these organizations to help solve the growing problems. That simply reflects a truth that usually resonates with political conservatives: the government cannot do everything itself. Indeed, the government is ill-situated to address the tangle of humanitarian needs spread across border communities. But it has the resources to enlist the help of groups that can.
Fundamentally, those leading this charge seem to misunderstand religious compassion. Gooden cynically suggested that these groups hope to enrich themselves with federal grants. That is a risible accusation against religious communities that have served the impoverished for millennia because they are called to do so.
At one hearing, Tiffany asked with exasperation whether people who support these groups know that they provide aid at the border. The real question is why, in the face of a humanitarian crisis, they should expect anything else?
Peeled back, these allegations reveal a harsh demand: that religious organizations deny their calling to comfort the ailing and sit idly as vulnerable migrants suffer until the government — that is, these congressmen and their colleagues — figure out the border morass.
Fortunately, political grandstanding will not enforce the demand to abandon this vital work. Take it from Catholic Charities, which responded to the congressional threats by declaring that caring for migrants is “part of the fabric of the global Catholic Church and is mandated by the gospel.”
But our elected representatives must end this misguided quest to shut down the ministries more directly. The First Amendment demands that much — and so does basic decency.
The humanitarian ministries of religious groups did not create our problems at the border, and those problems will only get worse if they are forced to close. Members of the Senate surely know this. Not that long ago, Sen. Cruz himself thanked Catholic Charities for its work at the border. Some in the Senate must have the political courage to do the same today.
John Meiser is the director of Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic and a Term Teaching Professor of Law.
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