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‘A Line That Should Not Be Crossed’

Bishop denounces family separation at border, shows solidarity with detainees

By Alexandra Mendoza

OTAY MESA — When Jesus was born He was hunted by the government, forcing His family to flee the country and seek refuge, Bishop Robert W. McElroy told an estimated 1,000 people who gathered outside the gate of a federal detention facility.

“I grieve because I think of the fact that if Mary, Joseph and Jesus had come to our border last week as refugees, the child Jesus would have been ripped from their arms and put in a cage,” he told them.

On June 23, Bishop McElroy and Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan joined dozens of faith leaders from across California who rallied outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where immigrants are held, to support families that had been separated after entering the country illegally.

The demonstration came three days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order halting the practice of separating the families after searing photos and audio recordings of desperate, crying children sparked widespread public outrage.

The order, however, continues the president’s “zero tolerance” policy, which calls for the criminal prosecution of anyone entering unlawfully into the U.S. The Pentagon announced that it was preparing to build temporary camps for detained immigrants at two military bases to house as many as 20,000.

Immigration authorities struggled, meanwhile, to explain how they were going to reunite 2,300 children in their custody with their parents.

The issue of immigration is a deeply divisive one, differences sharpened in recent years by the pronouncements of then-candidate Trump and his actions as president.

Based on Catholic theology and social teaching, U.S. bishops have consistently called for the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status. On June 13, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the policy of separating families and again urged comprehensive immigration reform.

“Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. “While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”

Bishop McElroy echoed those themes at the rally outside the detention center.

“We must understand the dignity of every single human person,” said Bishop McElroy. “That all of us together are brothers and sisters, and that is the foundational assertion of who we are as a people and what we believe.”

Working through Catholic Charities, the Diocese of San Diego is helping Dreamers renew their DACA permits, helping families to prepare for possible detention or deportation (particularly important for undocumented parents with U.S.-born children); and providing legal support for migrants in detention or in deportation proceedings.

At the same time, in response to the surge of families being detained, the diocese is working on a plan to provide temporary housing for mothers and their children who are released by immigration authorities and are able to legally stay in the country pending the outcome of their case.

The San Diego Organizing Project, a coalition of faith organizations, along with PICO California, organized the demonstration at the detention center and a candlelight vigil the night before at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in San Ysidro. Catholic priests, pastors, rabbis and Buddhist nuns, among other clergy, participated in both events, some traveling from northern California to the border.

As they marched toward the detention center, the demonstrators chanted “No justice, no peace!,” “Let our children go!” and “No cages, no walls!”

The detention center houses immigrants in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who are awaiting court proceedings.

One of the most emotionally powerful moments came when the marchers approached the gate and yelled out, “¡No están solos!” [You are not alone!]. Cheers could be heard coming from inside in response.

“That was very moving, that the people inside heard us and understood our support of them,” said Bishop McElroy.

At the demonstration, he spoke about the effects of the policy not only on migrants but on America as a whole.

“We come here today because we are grieving. Grieving for the hurt imposed upon those people who were apprehended on our borders and separated from their children, and treated like rejects of our society,” he said. “But even more, we grieve this day for the soul of our nation, which we love so much.”

Then he reflected on the Bible story of the Holy Family forced to flee their country and take refuge in Egypt to protect the baby Jesus from being killed by King Herod.

“I grieve because I think of the fact that if Mary, Joseph and Jesus had come to our border last week as refugees, the child Jesus would have been ripped from their arms and put in a cage.”

He urged everyone to “open our hearts and link with the vast people of the United States who have come to see that this is a line that should not be crossed and must never be crossed again.”

The faith leaders agreed that it was important to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable. After the faith leaders spoke, several dozen demonstrators participated in an act of civil disobedience; they ignored orders to stop and were able to reach the center’s front entrance, where they came together to pray and sing.

“Don’t be afraid, I’m with you,” chanted the demonstrators, who opened a path so those visiting their loved ones inside could enter the center.

Meanwhile, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the private prison company CoreCivic, which operates the detention center, plans to add 512 beds to the facility. The center, which has a current capacity of 1,458 beds, would grow by 35 percent once the expansion is complete.

The Southern Cross

Aida Bustos contributed to this story.

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