Speaking at a press conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, several Catholic bishops questioned the effectiveness and humaneness of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and called for them to be abandoned.
John Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City, said the present is “a dark period in our country on the issue of immigration.” After the failure of the immigration reform bill in Congress last year, he argued, there has been an “unprecedented emphasis on enforcement-only initiatives.” The bishop charged that these initiatives are “designed to create an atmosphere of fear in immigrant communities,” and constitute a policy of “deportation by attrition.”
He emphasized that the bishops did not question the right of the government to enforce immigration laws, but questioned whether worksite raids are effective and “most importantly, humane.”
Bishop Wester explained that he had witnessed the consequences of such raids first-hand, which he said include the disruption of communities, the separation children who are U.S. citizens from their parents, and the removal of minor children’s primary caregivers.
“We call upon President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider the use of worksite enforcement raids,” he said, asking the government to “please abandon them” if human rights protections can’t be implemented.
Bishop of Laredo James Tamayo also asked that the U.S. government consider ending worksite enforcement raids, charging that they “undermine basic human dignity and family unity” and “pit human beings against each other in a violent and frightening way.”
“Just enforcement must take place in a way that balances the national interest with the basic God-given rights and dignity of human beings.
“In the Church’s view, these raids fail to meet this test,” he insisted, pointing out that many families have mixed legal status and are broken apart by the raids.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, emphasized the Catholic Church has never supported an “open borders” immigration policy. However, he voiced concerns about immigration enforcement, state and local initiatives restricting undocumented immigrants’ ability to find housing and employment, the growing number of arrests, and the continued dependence of the families of arrested workers on Catholic Charities.
Kerwin reported that the immigration enforcement budget is projected to continue to grow from $9.7 billion in 2004 to $15 billion in 2009. He added that in 2007 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had arrested 30,000 people as part of an expanding initiative to arrest persons with “outstanding removal orders.”
“The Department of Homeland Security now detains 32,000 people per night, most of them in 310 local prisons,” Kerwin claimed.
He compared the arrest rates in fiscal year 2004, during which 685 people were arrested in immigration raids and 160 criminally charged, with the uncompleted fiscal year 2008 figures of 3,900 arrested and more than 1,000 criminally charged.
Kerwin also noted that Catholic parishes and Catholic Charities agencies are trying to provide necessities and basic services for the families of persons arrested, noting that one Catholic Charities branch in Fall River, Massachusetts is still helping immigrant families 16 months after a raid at a textile manufacturing facility in the area.
“More than 75 percent of the Catholic agencies that attended a workshop on raids at our national Catholic gathering on immigration in July and August of this year have been involved in raid-response work,” he said.
Addressing the press conference, Bishop of Las Cruces Ricardo Ramirez described the recent raids in Roswell, New Mexico and raised concerns that local police officers are enforcing federal law.
The bishop explained that he is “very impressed” with the training for federal agents trained to enforce immigration law, saying “They already know the Spanish language, they know immigration law, and know how to treat people in humane way.”
However, he commented, local police are often not trained so thoroughly or effectively.
Bishop of Orlando Thomas Wenski, noting national security concerns are often cited in the immigration debate, asked whether targeting “people working in meatpacking plants” is the “best use of scarce resources on the part of government.”
During the press conference all the bishops endorsed “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Replying to a question about the timing of the press conference and whether the bishops wanted to make immigration an election issue, the bishops noted that the raids are an ongoing issue. However, they said their statements would be sent both to the McCain and Obama campaigns.
Asked about allegations that the U.S. bishops are using immigration to fill emptying pews, one bishop said, “Our concern is about people of all faith[s]. Our perspective is a humanitarian perspective, for all individuals seeking a better way of living for themselves.”
Another speaker responded that “the reality is that people are already here… we’re just responding out of human need.”
“We don’t ask people their religion, we just serve them,” he added.
One topic of discussion concerned women left unattended at the Arizona border after being deported. These women are reportedly expected to cross the Sonora Desert by themselves despite the dangers, which include rape.
Speakers characterized anti-illegal immigration activists as a “vocal minority” and said most Americans support or can be persuaded to support immigration reform. Some argued that the U.S. is close to historic levels of employment and claimed that immigrants, rather than suppress the job market, actually stimulate the economy.
Explaining the motives of the U.S. bishops, Bishop Wester said they hope to “reframe the question,” correct false information, and emphasize the complexities of immigration problems.
Bishop Ramirez asked the press to show the “human face” of immigrants.
He explained that in one New Mexico town, media coverage helped stop raids where the police were going into the schools and “intimidating children” of illegal immigrants. This police action made their parents afraid to send their children to school or shop for groceries until the people affected by such action received media attention.
“That human face really made a difference, and the raids stopped,” the bishop said.