WASHINGTON — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and two fellow bishops praised a new immigration-reform bill crafted by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, but also suggested several improvements that should be added to the final legislation to protect human dignity and rights.

Speaking with reporters during an April 22 conference call, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, framed the immigration issue within the Catholic Church’s long history of welcoming and integrating successive waves of immigrants into American society.

“Perhaps more than any other religion in the United States, we are a faith of immigrants. We’ve been a nation of immigrants, but it is almost as if the Catholic Church is an icon of the immigrant makeup of the United States of America,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City also commended the senators for showing leadership on the controversial and divisive issue, even as they said the bill needs to offer a faster track toward citizenship for more undocumented immigrants and their families.

Archbishop Gomez said the Senate bill contains “many of the elements the bishops are looking for,” adding, “The job now is to improve it, so that all can come out of the shadows and achieve the American dream.”

“This is much more than a political issue,” Bishop Wester added. “It’s a moral issue. It’s a human issue.”


The Proposed Bill

On April 18, the bipartisan group of eight senators — known as the Gang of Eight — introduced its comprehensive immigration-reform bill, which offers a path to legal status, and eventual citizenship, for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before Dec. 31, 2011. It is estimated there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

According to the proposed bill, those immigrants would be eligible to apply for a provisional legal status as soon as six months after the bill is signed into law. They would be required to pay a fine and taxes, as well as undergo background checks. They would need to wait about 13 years before becoming full citizens, while the federal government worked on securing the Mexican border and enforcing the new immigration law.

The senators’ plan would also funnel billions of dollars into heightened border security through surveillance drones, new fencing and 3,500 additional border agents.

The bill’s stated goal is to stop 90% of illegal border crossings along sections of the U.S. border with Mexico. It seeks to tighten porous zones in high-risk areas where law enforcement have had less success in sealing the border, such as parts of Arizona.

An analysis by the Urban Institute says the senators’ plan is similar to President Barack Obama’s proposal, though the president wants to provide an immediate path to citizenship, while the Senate focuses first on border security and enforcement. The president’s blueprint also includes immigration protections for same-sex partners, while the Senate’s plan does not contain that provision.

The Gang of Eight consists of Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

“I think 2013 is the year of immigration reform,” Graham said during the April 18 press conference introducing the bill’s provisions.

Rubio, who is seen as a possible 2016 presidential candidate and whose support of immigration reform is considered crucial political cover for conservatives, said during the press conference that leaving the system the way it is now is the “real amnesty.”

“It is in the national interest to bring people out of the shadows,” said Rubio. He added, “This is who we are. We are the most compassionate nation on earth.”

The Gang of Eight said it hopes to have the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor by early June.

However, Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns that the legislation is being rushed and that it may actually undermine border security.

“As I read it, the border-security provisions in this bill would necessarily mean that the border patrol will shift resources away, in a pre-announced fashion, from most of the border sectors in order to reach the goals for only a few,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said during an April 22 Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.

“We can only imagine what the transnational criminal organizations that move drugs, people and contraband across our border will do in response,” Cornyn said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer told Yahoo! and ABC News’ Power Players that the U.S. southern border still remains porous under the Gang of Eight plan.

“If they were to call me today, that’s a hypothetical, but if they were to call me today, I would say, ‘Our border is not secure,’” Brewer said. “And I would not be in a position to support their measure.”


Balanced Approach

Bishop Wester said the bishops recognize the need for balancing immigration reform with border security, but he cautioned that enforcement-only policies are ineffective if they are not balanced by human-rights policies.

“More than $150 billion has been spent on immigration enforcement in the last 10 years, but it has not stemmed the tide or done anything to reform our system,” said Bishop Wester, who added that reform should not be contingent on security measures.

However, some Republican lawmakers have already pointed to the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon — allegedly committed by two young immigrants from Chechnya — as justification for slowing down the push for an immigration bill.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that raised concerns about ongoing security issues: “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system. If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.”

However, Cardinal Dolan argued during the April 22 conference call that it was “illogical” to connect the marathon bombings with the immigration issue.

“First of all, out of common sense, to label a whole group of people, namely the vast population of hardworking, reliable, virtuous immigrants, to label them and demean them because of the vicious, tragic action of two people is ridiculous. It’s illogical. It’s unfair. It’s unjust,” Cardinal Dolan said.

He noted that Irish immigrants in the 19th century were also unfairly maligned because of the violent actions of a small minority of immigrants.

“I just think maybe opponents of immigration, and, unfortunately, there are many … they will seize on anything; and when you have something as recent and vivid as the tragedy in Boston, it puts another arrow in their quiver,” Cardinal Dolan added.


Too Many Obstacles?

Meanwhile, Archbishop Gomez said he was concerned that the current Senate plan places too many obstacles and requirements on the path to citizenship that can leave many behind in the shadows. He said the bishops would like to reduce the length of time for undocumented immigrants to receive green cards and citizenship.

It is important to protect family unity in the immigration system by ensuring that families can achieve legal status together, he said. The Los Angeles archbishop called the immigration debate “an important and historic moment for our country and for the Church.”

“We think the lives of millions of our fellow human beings depend on it,” Archbishop Gomez said. “We are committed to supporting that effort, and, hopefully, we will see comprehensive reform pass really soon.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.