WASHINGTON (OSV News) – Unauthorized border crossings increased in 2023, fueled in part by shifts in U.S. policy and global migration trends. The year saw increasingly heated anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions that also put Catholic Charities agencies – and the church’s religious freedom to minister to migrants – in the crosshairs.

In fiscal year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022-Sept. 30, 2023), U.S. Customs and Border Protection saw almost 2.48 million encounters at the nation’s southwest land border, up from close to 2.38 million in the previous fiscal year. (As defined by the agency, encounter statistics represent the number of interactions between CBP and migrants, not the number of individuals.)

A Venezuelan migrant is seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, Sept. 30, 2023, as he thanks God while walking through the Rio Grande in an attempt to cross into Texas to seek asylum in the United States. (OSV News photo/Daniel Becerril, Reuters)

J. Kevin Appleby, senior fellow for policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the former director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV News that “with a record number of migrants arriving at the border, not to mention a record number of displaced globally, persons fleeing violence and poverty may face increasingly punitive immigration policies in 2024 and beyond.”

“The voice of the Church in defending their rights will become even more crucial in the year ahead, especially in an election year in which anti-immigrant rhetoric will become more commonplace,” Appleby said.

U.S. policy on unauthorized migration saw significant changes over the course of 2023.

Title 42, a part of the federal health law used by the Trump administration to expel migrants, including those seeking asylum, during the COVID-19 pandemic, was officially ended by the Biden administration in May. But the administration quickly followed it with a policy sometimes referred to as an asylum ban. This policy denied asylum to migrants who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border without first applying online or seeking asylum protections in a different country and faced legal scrutiny, with a judge blocking it in July.

In August, a federal appeals court allowed the ban to remain in effect, and the ban along with other more restrictive immigration measures is back on the table as Republican lawmakers seek tougher immigration policies in exchange for supporting the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing war.

Construction on the controversial border wall, initiated under the Trump administration and long opposed by the U.S. Catholic bishops, received a renewed green light from the Biden administration in October, with the president saying that although he did not endorse the wall, the 2019 law passed by Congress upheld the project.

Among the state laws enacted this year, Texas adopted SB4, legislation that makes crossing into the state unlawfully a state crime separate from a federal one, and gives state judges the ability to issue de facto deportation orders. Several groups have filed legal challenges.

Texas and several states also are spending large sums to bus migrants throughout the country, hoping to ease the strain on their local social support resources. However, the practice has drawn both legal challenges and humanitarian outrage, while incurring mounting costs.

Florida also enacted new, immigration-focused laws in July. A previous version of that bill directly challenged the church’s religious liberty by threatening third-degree felony charges for those who transported or harbored migrants — a broad net that Catholic and other Christian leaders were concerned would have ensnared the church’s established ministries and charitable services to migrants, as well as its ordinary pastoral and sacramental care.

This year Catholic Charities USA, which represents a network of Catholic humanitarian organizations in the U.S., had to respond to what it called “disturbing” violent remarks by a social media influencer suggesting Catholic Charities’ workers and volunteers should be shot for sheltering migrants.

Disturbing anti-migrant rhetoric also has seeped into the U.S. presidential campaign. At a Dec. 17 campaign event in New Hampshire, former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the GOP’s nomination to return to the White House and has made a hardline immigration stance part of his platform, said immigrants coming to the U.S. are “poisoning the blood of our country,” pointing to migrants from South America, Africa and Asia. He made a similar post on social media in which he said “illegal immigration is poisoning the blood of our nation.”

The Biden administration immediately responded that Trump had “parroted Adolf Hitler,” referencing Nazi Germany leader’s use of the term “blood poisoning” in his book “Mein Kampf.” On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump GOP rival, Catholic and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Trump’s words “dog-whistling to blame it (Americans’ stress and strain from the economy and global conflicts) on people from areas that don’t look like us.”

Meanwhile, a June 2023 Gallup survey found that 41% of Americans said even legal immigration should be reduced, while 68% on the whole said immigration was a positive thing for the U.S.

Appleby said “a perfect storm of push factors” have “driven migration upward in 2023, including oppressive governments and failed states in our hemisphere.”

“Climate change is another emerging push factor which has compounded the problem,” he added. “Until the U.S. and other nations effectively address these root causes, we may continue to see higher numbers at the Southern border. Punitive enforcement policies will not solve this challenge, as the push factors driving people are stronger over the long term.”

Among those push factors are corrupt governments in migrants’ countries of origin, gang violence and other types of transnational crime, which work to drive up migration to the U.S.

“In Central America, criminal gangs are very powerful and violent,” Louise Shelley, professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and director of its Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, told OSV News. “The homicide rates in Central America, much related to gang violence, are among the highest in the world. Individuals are threatened with extortion (and) kidnapping, and are tortured.”

Gangs in Central America as well as Haiti are “key drivers” for migration from those countries, Shelley said, with “more structured organized crime groups … present in Colombia and (in) many other countries in Latin American and other regions of the world.”

“In order to leave their sometimes dangerous and desperate situations, many immigrants hire smuggling groups — often part or related to organized crime — to protect them and move them to what they perceive will be a better place to live,” she added. “As the migrants often do not have the money to pay smugglers all they want, some of the migrants become victims of human trafficking.”

Others who minister to migrants expressed frustration with how the U.S. handles those arriving at its borders.

Sister Rose Patrice Kuhn, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister who currently ministers to migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border at McAllen, Texas with women religious from several congregations, told OSV News, “It doesn’t seem like there’s a real policy to take care of the migrants.

“I’m not saying that immigration doesn’t take care of them, but I don’t know of any political figures that are trying to get bills passed that will make it clear what the policy is in the United States for migrants or asylum seekers,” said Sister Rose, who works with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and with ministries in Reynosa, Mexico. “It doesn’t seem like anybody’s really pushing to take care of the people … so that they will know what’s happening in their life.”

Many of those arriving at the border have experienced physical and sexual violence, as well as kidnapping for ransom, said Sister Rose, who sees anywhere from “300 to 1,000 migrants” per day at the humanitarian respite center operated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Sister Rose added that migrants crossing directly through the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. “have nothing with them but the clothes on their back.”

“They have nothing,” she said. “I mean, they come to us in Catholic Charities, and they don’t have a comb; they don’t have a brush; they don’t have a toothbrush; they don’t have shoes. Most of them have flip-flops at this point. Socks have been given to them here. When they cross the river, they have nothing — positively nothing. And a lot of times they have no place to go and no relatives that are going to help them.”

As 2023 drew to a close, lawmakers in Congress failed to conclude negotiations on an emergency spending bill to provide billions of dollars in wartime aid to Ukraine and Israel, with Republicans demanding strict new policies at the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange, drawing concern from Catholic bishops and migrant advocates as the White House searches for a deal in 2024.

“Recent policy proposals that would undermine respect for the sanctity of human life, including that of the humble migrant seeking asylum at our border, remind us of the perils of our own culture, in which hope and unity collide with an abundance of fear and division, often yielding indifference to our shared humanity,” Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, remarked in a Dec. 12 statement marking the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Bishop Seitz, at the very beginning of the year, had met with President Joe Biden during the latter’s brief visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, urging him on behalf of the bishops to reverse course on the country’s migration policies. He added, “As Catholics, we affirm and defend an unconditional respect for human life and dignity, no matter the circumstance.”