The Department of Homeland Security has asked Catholic churches in California to temporarily house and feed groups of Central American migrants until 2016, according to an official at the diocese of San Bernardino.
But any unpaid cooperation is legally questionable, because it may be intended to bypass Congress’ authority to fund — or to not fund — federal agencies’ new practice of distributing the flood of migrant families to homes across the country.
The department “has reached out to the diocese and the bishop, and asked us to shelter families in transition,” Maria Christina Mendez, at the Office of Hispanic Affairs, told The Daily Caller. The services would be needed for the next 18 months, “or longer,” she said.
In response, the diocese has offered to let family groups of migrants stay at its buildings for up to three days, while they are being relayed by federal immigration agencies to cities and towns where they want to live, she said.
“Some of them are going to the East Coast, some of them are going all the way up north,” she told The Daily Caller.
The illegal inflow includes at least 100,000 people since October. Many are in so-called “family units” of adults and children.
At least 50,000 migrants are unaccompanied youths and children, many of which are being sent by smugglers — dubbed “coyotes” — to their parents who are illegally living in the United States. Roughly half of the youths are males who say they are aged between 14 and 17. These youths and children are not being sent to the Catholic diocese.
So far, one convoy of family groups has been sent to the diocese, said Virginia Kice, western region communications director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The transfer of migrants into California has been suspended following public protests in Murrieta, Calif., she said.
The diocese has offered to shelter and feed the migrants at some of its facilities, including a convent and a school, Mendez said.
“None of them are going to stay more than 72 hours, we’ve been told,” she said.
The diocese’ activities were exposed only after parishioners called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show to protest the bishop’s agreement to provide shelter to the families for DHS.
“They have made the decision that they’re going to absorb the immigrants that are coming through because the federal government called the bishop’s office on Monday,” said one of the parishioners, named Ann. “The church will reimburse us for any out-of-pocket expenses and we were told not to talk to anybody about it, especially the media.”
They were told to be silent to prevent any local protests, Ann said. “They don’t want a lot of people there at the churches when they busload these mothers and children,” said Ann.
The church’s provision of free services to DHS — and its reported offer to pay homeowners for services given to DHS — however, are also potentially illegal.
Federal law, dubbed the Anti-Deficiency Act, prevents government agencies from taking free services from people or private organizations, because that would allow the agencies to bypass congressional power of the purse.
“We reached out … to a number of community and faith-based groups several weeks ago,” Kice said. “They could serve an an invaluable intermediary in the process. … Our goal was simply to mitigate the impact on the migrants, to try to make their transition easier.”
The adult migrants and their children are being dispatched to regional ICE offices, where local officers will decide whether their claims of persecution or claims for asylum are sufficiently justified to deserve a court case, she said.
But, she said, “we didn’t provide any assurance of reimbursement.”
The agencies can accept services in emergencies where lives are threatened. But there is no evidence that any migrants are endangered once they are detained.
The legality of particular actions are “fact specific, and it is really hard to make a determination” without a careful analysis, said Ray Natter, a lawyer with the D.C. firm of Barnett Sivon & Natter, P.C.
But, “the general rule is you can’t provide voluntary services to the government,” said Natter, who is the author of a report on the issue, and a former counsel to the Senate’s banking committee.
The Catholic Church’s charitable arm does receive funding for immigration-related services from the federal government.
The church’s charity is a Christian duty, not a political stance, Mendez said. “We don’t have anything to do with immigration — we’re just providing food, clothing and shelter.”
The Catholic diocese in El Paso, Texas, has already helped 1,500 of the migrants, Mendez said.
The San Bernardino diocese spokesman, John Andrews, did not return calls seeking information.
Roughly 50 percent of the migrant youths will get to stay in the United States, Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in July.
On July 8, the administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion, at least half of which is intended to help the illegals settle into new homes in American cities and towns.
So far, GOP legislators have rejected Obama’s budget request, and have urged him to use existing laws and authorities to block and deter the mass migration from Central America.