Biden presidency spurs renewed optimism for Episcopal Church’s immigration advocacy

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 7, 2021

The Rev. Rodger Babnew, a deacon serving St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona, and a co-convener of Cruzando Fronteras, a Diocese of Arizona border ministry, leads 2019 Border Ministries Summit attendees on tour in Nogales. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] President Donald Trump spent his four years in office targeting both legal and illegal immigration on multiple fronts. Critics condemned his administration’s hardline policies as cruel and xenophobic, while Episcopal leaders joined ecumenical partners in arguing the country was failing to live up to Christian and American values.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to roll back many of Trump’s policies after he is inaugurated on Jan. 20, raising hopes among immigration advocates of a more humane approach to the issues. Experts have noted that Biden’s authority to change immigration policies, though significant, is not unlimited.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has long endorsed reforms that promote compassion and support for migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. During the Trump administration, the church stepped up its advocacy, including through the work of the church’s Washington-based Office of Government Relations. The agency on Jan. 5 included immigration on its list of priorities for the new Congress and White House.

“The Office of Government Relations will do all we can to push for the 117th Congress and the new administration to enact meaningful immigration reform,” Director Rebecca Blachly said in a statement to Episcopal News Service. The church “will continue to advocate for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, many of whom have U.S. citizen family members. As always, we will partner in our advocacy with religious and secular groups across the political spectrum with whom we share common goals.”

Biden can immediately reverse some policies through executive action, such as ending Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority nations and strengthening protection for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. More comprehensive immigration reform may take time because it requires bipartisan legislative action in Congress.

Episcopal News Service reported frequently on the church’s responses to the Trump administration’s immigration actions. The following is an overview of some of the key policies, possible changes under the incoming Biden administration and Episcopal leaders’ outlook for church advocacy.

Refugee resettlement

Few aspects of immigration policy are poised for a reversal as dramatic as the shift on refugee resettlement. Presidents set the ceiling, or maximum number, for refugees to be resettled in the United States each year. Trump slashed that number in his term to a historic low of 15,000 this fiscal year. Biden has said he will increase it to 125,000 – one of the highest annual limits since the program was created in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter.

Episcopal Migration Ministries, or EMM, is one of nine agencies with contracts to facilitate resettlement on behalf of the State Department. The number of local affiliates that EMM works with dwindled from 31 to 12 under Trump. Refugee resettlement operations in the U.S. aren’t expected to return quickly to previous levels, but EMM “looks forward to 2021 with optimism,” Director of Operations Demetrio Alvero said in a statement to ENS.

EMM will begin planning its response to an increase in refugee resettlement under Biden by coordinating with affiliates, congregations and communities. “The process of bringing back capacity in the resettlement program to the levels seen in prior years will take time, effort, and will be contingent on funding,” Alvero said. “Building back will be a gradual, measured process. It won’t happen overnight.”

The Rev. Charles Robertson, the canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, said EMM remains central to the church’s work on immigration. The agency “not only resettles refugees in partnership with the U.S. government,” Robertson told ENS, but “also supports asylum-seekers and immigrants in detention through ministry networks, addresses the crisis on the border and looks at broader migration issues throughout the Anglican Communion.”

Refugee demonstration

People protest against Trump administration cuts to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington in October 2019. Photo: Reuters

Asylum-seekers and ‘remain in Mexico’

The Trump administration pursued policies making it more difficult for asylum cases to be heard, including the “remain in Mexico” policy, which blocks migrants on the southern U.S. border from waiting in the United States while their cases are pending. Biden said last month that he will reverse the Trump administration’s policies on asylum – but at a cautious pace, to prevent a sudden surge of migrants on the border.

The Episcopal dioceses along the southern border have prioritized ministries of support for asylum-seekers in recent years. The Rev. Lee Curtis, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, told ENS he was encouraged by Biden’s careful and deliberate approach to reversing Trump’s policies.

“The last few years, policy changes come down pretty much unannounced and not really planned for,” said Curtis, whose diocese in New Mexico and western Texas spans 40% of the southern U.S. border. A sudden end to “remain in Mexico” could overload the capacity of relief efforts as asylum-seekers rush to cross the border.

Instead, a gradual policy shift would allow diocesan leaders and their nonprofit partners time to plan for providing temporary shelter and travel assistance to asylum-seekers, while coordinating with federal agencies and elected officials – “so we can treat this like the humanitarian crisis that it is,” Curtis said.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA

DACA was established under President Barack Obama in 2012 to protect from deportation about 800,000 people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump moved in 2017 to terminate DACA, arguing the recipients’ legal residency status needs to be addressed by legislation, not executive action. Last year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limited Trump’s efforts but left the program’s fate in legal limbo. A new federal ruling from a court in Texas could come at any time.

Biden could restore some short-term security for those individuals while Congress weighs a long-term solution. DACA, though not a path to citizenship, allowed recipients to work in the United States if they met certain criteria.

Last year, the Office of Government Relations, working with EMM, coordinated virtual action days and meetings with staff members in the offices of more than a dozen U.S. senators, urging passage of DREAM Act legislation or compromise measures that would preserve protections for DACA recipients. Such advocacy will continue this year, even if Biden restores DACA protections by executive action.

Immigrant detention and family separation

During Trump’s four years, immigrant advocates have complained that his policies have led to individuals being arbitrarily detained and sometimes deported without warning, even when it broke up families. The Trump administration also pursued a “zero tolerance” policy that included separating migrant children from their families at the border as a method of deterrence, until that policy faced intense backlash.

The 79th General Convention passed three resolutions on immigration in 2018, including one that put the church on record as respecting the dignity of immigrants and outlines how public policy should reflect that belief. Another opposed family separations and inhumane treatment of immigrant parents and children.

Although many migrant families have since been reunited, immigrant advocacy groups scrambled last year to locate the parents of more than 500 remaining children who were orphaned by the Trump administration’s policies. Since the election, Biden’s team has meet with advocates to discuss ways of supporting reunification efforts and to restore the immigrant community’s trust after the damage done by the family separations.

In July 2018, during the 79th General Convention, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches a homily of “love God, love neighbor” to more than 1,000 people during a Prayer of Vision, Witness and Justice near the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, where 500 women are housed, in Taylor, Texas. Photo: Frank Logue

Temporary Protected Status, or TPS

When Trump took office in 2017, foreign nationals from several countries were protected from deportation because previous administrations had granted them Temporary Protected Status. The status recognizes the threats to their safety of returning to home countries, typically because of wars or natural disasters. TPS now applies to 10 countries. Most of the hundreds of thousands of recipients are originally from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.

General Convention approved a resolution in 2015 pledging to support Temporary Protected Status “for all immigrants fleeing for refuge from violence, environmental disaster, economic devastation, or cultural abuse or other forms of abuse.”

The Trump administration tried to end protections for many of those with TPS, saying the status never was intended to offer immigrants permanent residency. Those TPS terminations are on hold while they are being contested in federal court. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security ordered an extension of the protections until October while the legal case is pending.

Biden promised during the campaign that he would ensure no one is forced to return to countries where conditions remain unsafe. He said his administration would review TPS and seek a path to U.S. citizenship for those who have spent much of their lives in the United States.

“The feeling right now is very positive and optimistic,” said Elmer Romero, an Episcopalian and Salvadoran American who works with Salvadoran TPS recipients in Houston, Texas, through the support group Crecen. The recent extension of protections through October was only a “temporary victory,” he told ENS, and with a new Congress and new administration in the White House, he and other advocates will push for a more permanent solution.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at