U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seen in Falls Church, Va., Oct. 12, 2017. The U.S. bishops June 13 decried his decision that asylum seekers fleeing domestic or gang violence cannot find protection in the United States. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seen in Falls Church, Va., Oct. 12, 2017. The U.S. bishops June 13 decried his decision that asylum seekers fleeing domestic or gang violence cannot find protection in the United States. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

The U.S. bishops June 13 decried U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision that asylum seekers fleeing domestic or gang violence cannot find protection in the United States.

"At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life," the bishops' statement said. They urged the nation's policymakers and courts "to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life."

Sessions' decision "elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection," it said. "These vulnerable women will now face return to extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country."

The statement from the bishops came on the first day of their June 13-14 spring assembly in Fort Lauderdale.

Just after opening prayers, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, read the statement from the dais, and the bishops voiced their support.

Announced by Sessions at a June 11 news conference, the decision "negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeting domestic violence," it said. "Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors."

The attorney general reversed an immigration court's decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who said she had been abused by her husband. He said U.S. asylum laws cannot be used to remedy "all misfortune," including violence someone suffers in another country or other reasons related to an individual's "social, economic, family or other personal circumstances."

In his remarks, Cardinal DiNardo also said he joined Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Migration, "in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexican border as an implementation of the administration's zero tolerance policy."

"Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma," the cardinal said. "Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together.

"While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."

During the morning session, the U.S. bishops also heard a report from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican nuncio to the United States.

He talked about the need of church leaders to not just hear young people but to really listen to them, emphasizing that this is what Pope Francis often talks about it.

The nuncio talked about the encuentro process currently underway in the U.S., using it as a strong example of the church listening to the faithful

Regional encuentros are taking place all over the country. There delegates outline priorities that will shape Hispanic ministry for years to come. The regionals lead to the National Fifth Encuentro, or V Encuentro, to be held in Texas in September. Archbishop Pierre also talked about the church's upcoming Synod of Bishops on young people.

"Young people need to be a priority of the church" today, the nuncio said, "not just for the future of the church. … Young people express a desire of an intentional knowing encounter in Christ rather than a faith reduced to … moralism."

"I believe many young people desire wholistic formation. They want the church to facilitate an encounter with Jesus," he said. Such an encounter "provokes the question 'What interests me in life' and leads to works of justice and mercy and to live life … with great intensity while loving their neighbor."

"Young people want to engage in reality" but do not want to be on that journey alone, he added. "They are searching for a strong sense of belonging."

Also on the agenda for their first day were reports from Father David Whitestone, chair of the bishops' National Advisory Council, which is marking the 50th anniversary of its formation, and from Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, which oversees implementation of the U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

Other reports covered the V Encuentro and the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, which will take place at the Vatican in October.

The bishops also heard preliminary presentations on several action items they will be voting on, including:

Revised guidelines governing Catholic and non-Catholic health care partnerships the audits. The revisions are limited to Part 6 of the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services," the document that governs moral questions related to the delivery of health care.

A new document described as a "pastoral response" to the growing Asian and Pacific Island Catholic community in the United States. "Encountering Christ in Harmony" offers pastoral suggestions to address the concerns and needs of Asian and Pacific Island Catholics.

Revisions in language to clarify seven of the 17 articles in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Adults." The changes offer more specific language in several areas. Article 4 has been revised to protect the seal of the sacrament of reconciliation. Changes in Articles 6 and 12 specifically state that all people who have contact with minors rather than those in positions of trust "will abide by standard of behavior and appropriate boundaries." In all, seven changes have been proposed for a vote by the bishops.