The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops started their biannual meeting Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, and the dominant topic was immigration policy. The current USCCB president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, began by condemning "two very troubling recent developments": Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to severely restrict asylum claims for victims of domestic and gang violence, and splitting apart families. "At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life," DiNardo said. Pulling young children from their parents can cause "irreparable harm and trauma," he added, and "separating babies from their mothers ... is immoral."
The bishops discussed several ways to address President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, including sending a delegate of bishops to inspect detention facilities "as a sign of our pastoral concern and protest against this hardening of the American heart," as Newark's Cardinal Joseph Tobin said, or directly lobbying conservative lawmakers.
Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, a canon lawyer, suggested "canonical penalties" for Catholics "who are involved" in the separation of families. Canonical penalties, which can range from denying sacraments to excommunication, "are there in place to heal," Weisenburger said. "And therefore, for the salvation of these people's souls, maybe it's time for us to look at canonical penalties." Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, suggested pastoral outreach for border agents struggling with their consciences.
As they were meeting, CNN reported that immigration agents had pulled away a baby who was breastfeeding and handcuffed the Honduran mother when she protested, but the bishops had their own stories, too. Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, Washington, told about an undocumented immigrant in his diocese who faces deportation after being pulled over for speeding while driving his wife to the hospital when she was in labor with their premature child. "If you want to save the unborn, you have to walk through the doors of the undocumented," he said.