.- Prominent U.S. bishops have expressed support for the immigration reform bill recently introduced in the Senate, although they noted that it still has room for improvement.
“We bishops are grateful for the brave senators who have introduced this bipartisan legislation,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York during a conference call April 22.
“We admire their leadership and courage in moving the issue forward, and in the name of my brother bishops I've assured them we look forward to working with them to achieve the fairest legislation possible.”
An immigration reform bill was introduced April 17 by a “Gang of Eight” senators who have been working to strike a deal between those who want to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and those who want to focus on securing the U.S. border.
If the legislation is passed, it will offer a 13-year path to citizenship to immigrants who are already in the country illegally. These immigrants will be required to pass background checks, be fingerprinted, pay fines and taxes, and prove gainful employment.
The bill would also institute other changes, including a wider pool of visas for migrant workers.
However, no undocumented immigrants can apply for temporary status until certain border security “triggers” are in place. These triggers include a border fence plan, employment verification and visa exit system to ensure immigrants cannot overstay their visa allowance.
Cardinal Dolan was joined on the call by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, and Kevin Appleby, director of the migration policy office of the U.S. bishops' conference.
The Church in the U.S. is an “icon” of the country's immigrant composition, Cardinal Dolan noted. He went on to tout the Church as “one of the most effective tools of Americanization in its best sense” and praised it for helping to “integrate newcomers into the social fabric of our nation for well over two centuries.”
The principles for just immigration reform, the cardinal said, include citizenship for a maximum number of persons in a reasonable amount of time, that families remain together, and that poor and low-skilled workers can enter the country “legally and safely to support their family.”
Vulnerable populations, such as refugees and migrant children, must receive protection, the root economic and social causes of immigration need to be addressed in foreign policy, and the integrity of American borders must be assured, he added.
Cardinal Dolan urged an end to the “broken, unjust and unfair” immigration system that is in place, noting that untold numbers of families are being divided and that “these are human beings made in God's image and likeness, and redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, and we moral leaders can't just stand by and let that happen.”
Archbishop Gomez, while noting that the bill “does some positive things for families,” said the bishops want to see it “improved and advanced” into law.
Among the concerns he raised were strict eligibility requirements and obstacles, which will “leave many behind” in the path to citizenship. Rather than the 13-year path currently in the bill, he hopes for a period of no more than 10 years.
He also called for the possibility of citizenship to be extended to those who came to the U.S. after the bill’s Dec. 31, 2011 cut-off date, and advocated a reduction in the fees and penalties that must be paid, “so that also poor migrants and their families can attain citizenship.”
“If the goal is to solve the problem in a humane manner, then all undocumented persons should be able to participate,” concluded Archbishop Gomez.
Bishop Wester emphasized that immigration reform must be comprehensive, pointing out that enforcement-only policies “don't work, if they aren't complemented by human policies.” The focus on enforcement, he said, has failed to stem the tide of immigration.
A comprehensive approach, as outlined in the new Senate bill, “would increase legal avenues for migrants to enter our nation safely and securely,” he observed.
However, he also expressed concern over the border security “triggers.” It would be “best to de-link these triggers from the other elements of the bill,” he said, and all elements should be implemented “simultaneously,” for the sake and safety of American immigrants.
Bishop Wester noted that immigration is not merely a political issue, but a “human and moral” one. He hopes for the bill's debate to be characterized by “civil and respectful” dialogue.
“Too often we hear human beings being referred to with pejorative terms and being de-humanized and demonized in the rhetoric of the debate, and it's important for us to be careful to remember that we're talking about human beings,” he said.
Cardinal Dolan added that while the bishops are often caricatured as opposing any type of immigration control, Catholic teaching has constantly affirmed the right to national security. However, he said, building higher fences with more barbed wire is not going to change the reality of immigration and is “counter-productive.”
Rather than focusing on physical obstacles, border security could be more effectively achieved by spending a fraction of that money improving the economies of Latin American countries, he suggested.
“If there were family unification,” he added, “and a legitimate, just, and expedited path to citizenship, we wouldn't have so many people trying to sneak through the desert and trying to dodge the walls.”
Catholics should be quick to support “fair immigration reform,” the cardinal continued, because any Catholic family need go back only a few generations to “find an immigrant that came over.”
Appleby estimated that the process of approving the immigration reform bill could stretch into the end of summer of autumn. He expects that it should be out of committee by the end of May and debated on the Senate floor in June, and from there be passed on to the House. The group noted hopefully the political expediency of passing the bill, given the impact of the Latino electorate in last year's elections.
“We're hopeful but not naïve, and we have a long fight ahead of us,” Cardinal Dolan concluded.
“We've got a few complaints about the current legislation, as thrilled as we are about it as a sign of progress, but we know that even that is going to have a tough time getting through.”
Despite the bill's flaws, he re-iterated that the bishops “are on board with this one.”