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Bishop Barnes on U.S. Immigration Policy

Hopes for Improvements With New Bill

SAN BERNARDINO, California, June 02, 2006 (Zenit) - The U.S. Immigration Reform Bill that passed in the Senate last week incorporates some important provisions, says a bishop.

But Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Refugees and Migrants, is hoping the legislation will improve when the House and Senate versions are reconciled.

The prelate shared with us his thoughts on immigration policy and the need for a comprehensive approach to the complex issue.

Q: The U.S. Congress is debating various immigration reform proposals and the Catholic bishops have been actively engaged in this debate. Why is the Church involved?

Bishop Barnes: Our faith teaches us to view civil laws from a moral perspective. Are they just? Do they uphold the God-given right to human dignity for all? Do they serve the common good?

When we bishops apply these tests to U.S. immigration laws, we conclude that significant changes are required.

In our nation there is a growing population of people who live in fear and on the margins of our society for lack of proper documentation. Families are kept apart for lack of legal means to reunify in a timely manner.

Our nation's labor demands can only be met today by employing unauthorized workers, because the availability of legal work visas pales in comparison to the demand.

And there is today an average of one migrant death per day along our southern border with Mexico, underscoring the desperation of the migrants and the inadequacies of our system.

Q: The U.S. bishops' conference has stated that sovereign nations have a right to control their borders. In a post-9/11 world, is cracking down on illegal immigration inconsistent with this right of states?

Bishop Barnes: Among the principles contained in Catholic social teaching regarding migration, yes, there is recognition that sovereign nations have the right, in fact the responsibility, to control their borders. This is to protect the common good.

There is also a principle within Catholic social teaching which holds that persons have a right to migrate to provide for themselves and their families.

Where these two seemingly conflicting principles get reconciled is in the development and application of immigration laws that take into consideration a nation's capacity to absorb newcomers, on the one hand, and the needs of migrants on the other.

In other words, richer nations have a greater responsibility than do poorer nations in being open to immigrants.

In this post-9/11 world, the United States has a special responsibility to ensure that those coming to this country are not doing so to inflict harm.

The bishops believe that if comprehensive reforms were made to our nation's immigration laws, including greater legal avenues to obtain employment and to reunify with relatives here, there would be fewer people crossing the border illegally or overstaying their temporary visas.

This, in turn, would allow border security resources to be applied more strategically toward preventing the entry of terrorists, drug smugglers and criminals.

What, then, to do about those here without proper authority? Since it is unrealistic to round them up and deport them -- the costs and economic impact rule out this option -- the government must find a way to bring these folks out of the shadows and put them on a path toward full participation in our society.

After all, the vast majority of these people has been in the United States for a period of time and has been contributing their labor and taxes.

Q: Why are U.S. lawmakers putting so much focus on immigration now? What are the key issues?

Bishop Barnes: There is growing concern over the seemingly porous borders, especially at this time of heightened security concerns over terrorism.

Americans are also frustrated over the fact that unauthorized entries have doubled during a period in which the government's investment in border enforcement has grown tenfold.

We also see record numbers of deaths of migrants in our Southwestern deserts. These things, taken together, lead to the conclusion many Americans come to: that our immigration system is out of control and badly in need of repair.

Some in Congress, however, believe the "fix" is through further border enforcement investments in the form of personnel, technology and fences, combined with more aggressive enforcement measures directed toward employers who hire undocumented aliens.

The bishops believe this approach, in the absence of other reforms, is doomed to fail.

To truly address the complex set of issues that is involved in immigration -- from the reasons people migrate, to how our nation meets its labor demands -- only a comprehensive approach will work.

From the bishops' perspective this means doing the following.

First, through U.S. foreign relations, trade and economic policies, we must encourage and support the creation of conditions that preclude the necessity for people to migrate for lack of opportunities in their homeland.

Second, we should create legal avenues for laborers to obtain jobs requiring foreign labor, while protecting American workers and the migrant worker.

Third is the elimination of the backlog of visas for family reunification, which at the present time requires up to 20 years' wait for some family members.

And lastly, for those in the country without proper authorization and who can demonstrate that they can be good citizens, we could put them on the path to citizenship.

Q: What are the biggest problems the Church in the United States has with the proposals put forward?

Bishop Barnes: The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation this past December which the bishops have forcefully rejected.

Among its ill-advised provisions, it would for the first time in our nation's history make felons out of immigrants who are in the country without proper authority.

Likewise, it would make it a felony to "assist" an undocumented alien, putting at risk members of the Catholic Church who assist immigrants every day, but do so now without regard of their immigration status.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this piece of legislation is that we do not believe it will fix the ills of our current immigration system.

If that bill were to become law and in a couple of years we continue to see a growing population entering the country illegally, the frustration level among Americans may well reach a breaking point and the backlash against immigrants, whether here legally or not, may become grave.

On May 25, the U.S. Senate passed its version of immigration reform.

That legislation, called "The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006," incorporates some of the provisions the bishops believe are important, such as a path to legal status, family visa backlog reductions, and a temporary workers program.

The bishops believe the bill could be improved and hope that when the House and Senate versions are reconciled, some improvements can be made. I am not overly optimistic about this outcome, though, with the hardened rhetoric coming from some members of Congress, who are calling for enforcement-only reforms.

In the weeks ahead, we should have a better indication of what approach will emerge from Congress -- a narrow, and ultimately ineffective, enforcement-only approach, or a comprehensive one that looks at all dimensions of this complex issue and addresses them holistically.


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Immigration, Policy, Barnes Refugees, Migrants

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