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Democratic senators have introduced legislation meant to address what they see as an unfair immigration provision that makes some families wait a decade or more to be reunited with family members seeking legal residence. But the “families” covered in the legislation include same-sex couples.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMONDREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — Cardinal Francis George
called on President Obama and Congress to work together to pass comprehensive
immigration reform legislation this year.
Issuing a statement June 18 at
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’
annual spring meeting, held in San Antonio, Cardinal George, conference
president, said that people coming to America in order to support their
families back home “continue to suffer at the hands of immigration policies
that separate them from family members and drive them into remote parts of the
American desert, sometimes to their deaths.”
Advocates for comprehensive
immigration reform have been heartened by Obama’s promise to pass
groundbreaking legislation this year.
activists worry that immigration reform will lose momentum amid growing fears
that the legalization of millions of workers would result in increased
competition for jobs during an era of rising unemployment.
Further, a House bill that targets a
key immigration issue — family reunification — could emerge as a major
stumbling block for Church-based activists, critical players in the pro-reform
coalition. The proposed legislation includes both married and same-sex couples;
the Catholic bishops, as well as evangelical Christian church groups, oppose
any attempt to create “new marriage rights.”
Kevin Appleby, director of the
bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policies, remains “hopeful” that Obama
will fulfill his campaign promise and address a broad range of immigration
issues, a key goal of the U.S. bishops since 2003. Appleby planned to press his
agenda when he joined other conference department heads at a meeting with White
House staff in late June.
“The popular perception is that the
pie is only so big, and guest worker programs and a streamlined path to
legalization threaten access to jobs. For many, that’s conventional wisdom,”
acknowledged Appleby. “But polls show that 60% of Americans support
comprehensive immigration reform and want issues addressed in a humane way.”
Immigration reform comprises an
unwieldy collection of political concerns, from maintaining and enforcing
border security to initiating a guest worker program to encouraging the return
or legalization of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in this
Additional issues include family
reunification, the cultural assimilation of immigrant communities and providing
justice for applicants that have waited in line for years to enter the country
On Capitol Hill, three key bills
that address family reunification, a longtime priority of the U.S. bishops,
underscore the evolving political challenges posed by immigration reform.
Historically, Catholic immigrants have embraced the family and then the Church
as their primary means of support in an alien land.
In the House, the broad-based
Uniting American Families Act, sponsored by Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif.,
includes provisions for same-sex relationships. In the Senate, the Reuniting
American Families Act, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., excludes
same-sex partners and is endorsed by the bishops’ conference.
However, an additional Senate bill,
sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the influential chairman of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, would insert the term “permanent partner” in sections of
current immigration law that deal with married couples and would provide a
legal definition of what constitutes a “permanent partner.”
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake
City, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote Honda to register
the conference’s strong opposition to his provision for same-sex couples in the
Uniting American Families Act. The inclusion of same-sex couples, wrote Bishop
Wester, would “erode the institution of marriage and family” and adopts a
stance that “is contrary to the very nature of marriage which predates the
Church and the state.”
During a break at the U.S. bishops’
semiannual meeting in San Antonio in mid-June, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento,
Calif., a member of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, confirmed to the
Register the bishops’ ongoing commitment to immigration reform, even as they
resisted any legislative initiatives opposed to Catholic moral teaching.
“The bishops’ position has been
consistent and clear. We will continue to press for the right and humane
approach to immigration reform,” said Bishop Soto.
But he also vowed that the bishops
would defend traditional marriage. Same-sex “marriage” “is still a contested
issue nationwide. There is no consensus on this matter, and to try to insert it
in immigration law seems contrived. It’s an attempt to backdoor some kind of
federal recognition of same-sex unions. I doubt that it is politically viable.”
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president
of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and a strong ally of
the U.S. bishops on immigration and traditional marriage, backed the bishops’
“The same-sex language in
Congressman Honda’s bill is explicit and will became a platform for federal
endorsement of same-sex unions and benefits. It’s not fair to immigrants or to
the gay and lesbian community,” contended Rodriguez. “I appreciate the bishops’
support for immigration reform and for transcendent values.”
Rodriguez feared that if Honda’s
bill gained traction, moderate and conservative Democrats, as well as
Republicans, might withdraw their support for comprehensive reform.
“Immigration reform is already a polarizing issue. If the inclusion of same-sex
couples continues to be pushed, it may be the death knell,” he said.
But Honda contested this judgment
and argued that religious groups wrongly opposed provisions for same-sex
couples. “The bill does not create new marriage rights. It allows permanent
partners who meet stringent criteria to reunite with their loved ones,” said
Honda, who noted that his bill covered a broad cross section of 2.7 million
Catholic leaders acknowledge that
the proposed inclusion of same-sex relationships is just one of many issues
that could derail their efforts to aid struggling immigrants. The economic
crisis has not only distracted the president, it has intensified widespread
concern about the economic and social consequences of legalizing millions of
Recognizing that American voters
must embrace comprehensive immigration reform as a source of economic
stability, Catholic leaders have moved beyond the human-rights issues to
underscore the benefits of drawing illegal immigrants into the economic
Bishop Soto, who meets regularly with
immigrants as well as big landowners in Sacramento, part of the nation’s
agricultural center, reported that short-staffed rural employers typically
endorse the Church’s high-profile advocacy.
the pro-reform message could be a tougher sell in Washington, where many
constituents and a spectrum of interest groups press politicians to enforce
immigration laws and send illegal immigrants back home. “We need workers, but
we don’t want to give them legal protections. Thus, they suffer, they die, and
they can be exploited,” contended Appleby.
Yet even in the nation’s capital,
local Church leaders believe there is cause for hope.
“The No. 1 goal for immigration
reform is justice for those who are working by granting them permanent
permission to work. We’re helping the poor, working families, and those who
want to build up the country,” said Father Mario Dorsonville, director of the
Washington Archdiocese’s Spanish Catholic Center, a leading source of social,
educational, medical and job-training services for low-income Hispanics in the
Though Father Dorsonville echoed
broader anxiety about the passage of comprehensive immigration reform bills, he
celebrated one very positive indicator: “This year our annual fundraising gala
made even more than last year — almost $400,000. People understand that now
more than ever we need to help.”
Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.