BALTIMORE — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Monday urged President-elect Donald Trump to adopt humane policies toward immigrants and refugees, as church leaders begin navigating what will likely be a complex relationship with the new administration.
Meeting just days after the election, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said serving people fleeing violence and conflict "is part of our identity as Catholics" and pledged to continue this ministry.
"We stand ready to work with a new administration to continue to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans. A duty to welcome and protect newcomers, particularly refugees, is an integral part of our mission to help our neighbors in need," the bishops said.
Trump had said during the campaign that he would build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and immediately deport all 11 million people in the country illegally, though he later distanced himself from that position. In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes," he said he would focus on deporting people with criminal records beyond their immigrant status, "probably two million, it could even be three million." The Obama administration has deported more than 2.5 million people since taking office in 2009, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Trump also told "60 Minutes" that his promised solid border wall might look more like a fence in spots. House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected any "deportation force" targeting people in the country illegally.
In a speech at the Baltimore assembly, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the bishops' conference, underscored that protecting refugees would remain a priority. He also highlighted an area where the bishops may find more common ground with Trump. Kurtz noted the importance of conscience rights for people who do not want to recognize same-sex marriage or comply with other laws they consider immoral. Trump has pledged to appoint anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and protect religious liberty.
"Don't allow government to define what integrity of faith means," Kurtz said. Dozens of dioceses and Catholic charities sued President Barack Obama over the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers provide coverage for birth control.
On Tuesday, the bishops meeting will elect Kurtz' successor, who will become lead representative from the conference to the Trump administration. After being on the defensive with Obama over abortion, LGBT rights and other issues, some conservative Catholics are optimistic about the chances for a rollback on some policies, such as the birth control rule.
Still, they are deeply concerned about the plight of immigrants after a brutal election in which Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and urged a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. although he later watered down that proposal. American Catholics have a vast network of aid programs for immigrants and refugees, and Pope Francis has put the issue at the core of his pontificate. About 4 in 10 U.S. Catholics are Latino and Hispanics are already a majority in several dioceses.
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis had opposed a request from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice-president elect, that the Catholic church stop settling Syrian refugees in the state. Tobin will be made a cardinal Sunday by the pope.
"We've just begun a conversation about how we're going to move forward," under Trump, said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont. Coyne said the bishops have known how to deal with Democrats and Republicans previously in the White House, but "this election has thrown all that out the window."
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, whose archdiocese is about 70 percent Latino, held a prayer service a few days ago to calm parishioners fearful of potential deportation. "They don't know what to make of it, especially many of them who have been here for a long time and they have families," Gomez said.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami has tried to reassure local Catholics by pointing back to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was first elected, and panic spread through the Haitian community. Reagan eventually signed immigration reform that enhanced border security, but also created an opening for some immigrants to stay in the U.S. who had entered the country illegally.
"It's time to take a deep breath and continue our advocacy," Wenski said. "If they're going to build a wall, we're going to have to be sure they put some doors in that wall."