Immigration reform a humanitarian issue, Arizona Catholic bishop tells Congress

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson.


Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday testified before Congress on the need for immigration reform, characterizing it as “ultimately a humanitarian issue.” Emphasizing the dangers and difficulties migrants face, he called for the legalization of migrants who face a “proportionate penalty.”

Speaking as vice-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the bishop addressed the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. His remarks came in oral testimony and in written testimony, copies of which were provided to CNA.

Bishop Kicanas noted that his diocese runs along the entire Arizona-Mexico border, which he called the “epicenter” of migrant movement.

“I witness the human consequences of our broken immigration system in my diocese’s social service programs, hospitals, schools, and parishes. Regularly, anxious and troubled immigrants come to ask our priests or employees for assistance for a loved one—a parent who has been detained, a child who has lost a parent, or, tragically, a family member who has lost a loved one in the harsh Arizona desert.”

“It is shocking to realize that about 5,000 men, women, and children have died in the desert since 1998,” he continued.

Because of the “broken” system, he said, families are being separated, workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers, and migrants are being abused by human smugglers.

Bishop Kicanas warned that the undocumented immigrants do not presently have the same rights as others, a situation which “perpetuates a permanent underclass.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform would honor the rule of law and help restore it by requiring 11 million undocumented to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and get in the back of the line,” he continued. “We believe this a proportionate penalty for the offense.”

Legal avenues for migrants’ entry would also free up law enforcement resources for smugglers, traffickers, and “other criminal elements.”

“Church teaching acknowledges and upholds the right of a nation to control its borders,” he added, arguing that “enforcement-only policies” have not solved the problem.

Bishop Kicanas also addressed the Arizona legislation SB 1070, saying he believed the law reflects “frustration” with Congress for not addressing the issue of immigration reform.

“The message is to break the partisan paralysis and act now.  Without Congressional action on immigration reform---sooner rather than later---other states will pass similar laws, to the detriment of our nation,” he commented.

The bishop also reported observing “hardening attitudes, deepening divisions, and growing rancor” on immigration.

In his written testimony, Bishop Kicanas urged the minimization of “harsh rhetoric” in the immigration debate and condemned terms that characterize immigrants as “less than human.” “Such harsh rhetoric has been encouraged by talk radio and cable TV, for sure, but also has been used by public officials, including members of Congress,” he commented.

Real reform, according to the bishop, would legalize undocumented migrants and their families in the U.S., provide legal means for migrants to enter the U.S. to work, and reform family reunification. Further, the “root causes” of migration should be addressed so that migrants may remain in their homelands.

Describing the Catholic Church as “an immigrant Church, his written testimony noted Catholic immigration programs’ involvement in the implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in the 1980s. There are currently 158 Catholic immigration programs throughout the country, he reported, saying such efforts are rooted in the belief that every person is created in God’s image.

This Catholic response is also rooted in Scripture, he explained, citing Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The bishop’s testimony also urged a permanent extension of the immigrant non-minister portion of the Religious Worker Visa Program, which now permits 5,000 non-minister religious and lay persons each year to enter the U.S. to work on a permanent basis both for their denominations and for the benefit of the community.

He reported that the bishops oppose a point system for migrants which places a higher value on highly educated and skilled immigrants than on family ties. Families start family businesses, provide for each other, and contribute their talents to local neighborhoods.

“Family reunification has been the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system since the inception of our republic. It would be foolhardy to abandon this system, as the family unit represents the core of our society and culture.”

The testimony also reiterated the bishops’ opposition to legislation that would grant homosexual partners the same immigration benefits as married couples, saying it would erode the institution of marriage and family and create additional controversy.

Bishop Kicanas’ statement endorsed legislation such as the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2009 and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM).

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