Catholic Bishops Challenge Donald Trump on Immigration

Two nights after Donald J. Trump won the presidential election, Archbishop José H. Gomez convened an interfaith prayer service at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles and gave an emotional homilyvowing not to abandon children and parents who are living in fear that Mr. Trump will follow through on his promise to deport millions of immigrants.

“This should not be happening in America,” said Archbishop Gomez, who is himself an immigrant from Mexico and a naturalized United States citizen. “We are not this kind of people. We are better than this.”

Five days later, on Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez was elected by his brother bishops at their meeting in Baltimore to be vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. With nine candidates in the running— including some prominent prelates — it was the day’s most closely watched vote, especially since the vice president is traditionally elevated to president in three years. Keeping to custom, the bishops voted to bump up Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, to president.

The choice of Archbishop Gomez was only one sign that Catholic bishops are preparing to defend immigrants and refugees against a newly elected president who has threatened deportations and who critics say has uncorked an ugly backlash against immigrants and minorities. They opened their meeting by endorsing a strongly worded letter to Mr. Trump that extended congratulations but also put him on notice that the church was committed to resettling refugees and keeping immigrant families intact.

“A lot of bishops told me they were surprised by the actual fear they were hearing on the ground,” said Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute, an advocacy group on United States-Mexico border issues. He formerly worked for the bishops’ conference and attended the meeting in Baltimore.

In the past week, Latino parishioners and students at Catholic colleges have been “turning to the church, calling their pastors, and pastors are calling their bishops and asking what to expect,” Mr. Corbett said. “The bishops wanted to send a clear message of solidarity.”

On many other priorities, the bishops may find common cause with Mr. Trump. They are eager to see him follow through with campaign promises to end or limit abortion, reverse the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act and create exemptions for religious people and institutions objecting to same-sex marriage.

However, the protection of immigrants is not only a biblical imperative for Catholic leaders but also a matter of pastoral care: More than one-third of American Catholics are now Latinos, and many others are immigrants from dozens of other countries. Latinos represent the future of the church: Sixty percent of Catholics in the United States younger than 18 are Latino, and 90 percent of them were born here.

“The bishops of the United States recognize the presence of Latinos in our community, in our country and also in the church,” Archbishop Gomez said of his election at a news conference in Baltimore. “I think our mission is to help people be united in our country, and have hope.”

Archbishop Gomez is in line to become the first Latino president of the bishops conference. He was appointed to lead the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest in the nation, in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, who preceded Pope Francis. The archbishop is a member of the Catholic group Opus Dei and is seen as a conservative on doctrine. It surprised many church observers when Pope Francis recently passed over Archbishop Gomez in naming new cardinals — three from the United States — because Los Angeles is usually a cardinal’s seat.

Beginning in January, Catholic dioceses are undertaking a nearly two-year initiative to reach out to Hispanic Catholics and better integrate them into the church. Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, applauded the effort in a video message to the bishops, suggesting that it could have a broader impact “for a society gripped by disconcerting social, cultural and spiritual shifts, and increasing polarization.”

The election starkly revealed the polarization not only within the country, but also within the church. White Catholics preferred Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton, 60 percent to 37 percent, while Hispanic Catholics favored Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump, 67 percent to 26 percent, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. The Catholic Church is the largest in the country, with 68 million members and about 23 percent of the electorate.