Bishops Wary of Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON— The Center for Immigration Studies doesn’t mince words when discussing the support American bishops give to immigrants.

“It seems downright immoral,” said John Keeley, a practicing Catholic and director of communications at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization that wants to eliminate illegal immigration and greatly reduce legal immigration.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed strong opposition Dec. 14 to the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act — a measure designed to curb illegal immigration, including a border wall. The House of Representatives passed the measure Dec. 16 in a 239-182 vote. The Senate will take up the legislation in the coming weeks.

With the bill about to be introduced in the House, the bishops came out with a statement Nov. 16, during their regular fall meeting in Washington. They called on dioceses to work harder at countering growing anti-immigration sentiment and to protect the human rights of foreign-born newcomers.

“The Church’s voice on behalf of immigrants is more critically needed than ever before,” Bishop Gerald Barnes, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Migration, said at the conference. “We have an opportunity to better inform our people about the situation of immigrants and how our nation’s laws need to be changed to reflect a more just approach to immigrants and immigration policy.”

The Committee on Migration last May launched the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, which asked U.S. bishops to find ways to support immigrants who live and worship in their dioceses. The campaign has asked each bishop to appoint a coordinator to oversee immigration support programs and to interface with the national campaign. About 50 coordinators have been appointed.

“There’s a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, even among some Catholics who themselves trace their roots to the immigrant experience,” Bishop Barnes said.

Case in point: Fernando Peña of Denver. Peña immigrated legally to the United States decades ago and became a citizen. A Catholic, Peña wants illegal immigrants deported.

“We left California because it has been essentially destroyed by illegal immigrants,” Peña said. “Now we are seeing the same thing in Colorado. Why? Because illegal Mexicans are moving in.”

Bishop Barnes told his fellow bishops that aiding immigrants in an increasingly hostile environment requires the culture to develop values of compassion and love of fellow humans.

“We must have more dioceses involved. The Church’s voice, on behalf of immigrants, is more critically needed than ever before,” the bishop told the conference.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said the Committee on Migration is considering a proposal that would ask bishops to support a legalization bill, which would facilitate illegal immigrants in gaining legal status and ultimately citizenship.

“Many of these people are our parishioners and they need our assistance,” DiMarzio said.

DiMarzio, a member of the Committee on Migration, said that he doesn’t care about the likely negative political ramifications the Church might face by supporting illegal immigrants in a society that’s growing immigrant-weary.

“We’re coming out for human beings who are in this country already,” DiMarzio said. “These are essential workers. They don’t live in parks and tents. They are integrated into our society. As a nation, it’s hypocrisy of the first degree to render them as second-class citizens while benefiting from their labor. We are not for undocumented immigration. We believe it’s bad for the country and bad for the individual. We believe immigration laws should reflect reality, and right now it’s a flawed system. Fix it.”

Keeley said it would be more compassionate for bishops to support deportation of illegal immigrants because the presence of illegal immigrants hurts “the working poor” who live and work in the United States legally.

“There is an array of indicators suggesting that our current immigration policy does a great job of importing cheap labor, and growing the ranks of the uninsured and poor in this country,” Keeley said. “That doesn’t seem a recipe for social and economic cohesion.”

In opposing the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, the bishops said they are most concerned about provisions that would:

" Expand expedited removal of illegal immigrants;

" Mandate detention of immigrants attempting to enter the United States illegally;

" Make it more difficult for long-term undocumented residents to obtain citizenship, and even restrict their ability to apply for citizenship and

" Make “unlawful presence” in the United States a crime rather than a civil violation.

One element of the bill that Bishop Barnes said he is particularly concerned about would apply criminal penalties to people who give assistance to illegal immigrants, including those working with Church organizations.

“The legislation would place parish, diocesan, and social service program staff at risk of criminal prosecution simply for performing their job,” Bishop Barnes said.

The proposed legislation provides for penalties for human smugglers.

Keeley said the bill represents a responsible effort to protect Americans and the American way of life from the dangers and economic threats posed by “runaway” immigration.

“A sizable segment of contemporary immigrants come from Latin and Central America, which are overwhelmingly Catholic,” Keeley said. “To the bishops, these are constituents coming across the border. It means more parishioners.”

Bishop DiMarzio said Catholic bishops are concerned with the welfare of all human beings, Catholic or otherwise.

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.