The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is advocating what it calls a "compassionate" approach to immigration reform that de-emphasizes harsh penalties in favour of more rational and long-term solutions. Three months earlier, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony strongly condemned anti-immigrant sentiment as "hysterical." In a Lenten address, he urged that policy be reformed in a way that balances the nation's security needs against rights of immigrants.
Recently, the most senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in Orange County, California called for immigration reform "which respects our common humanity." His Sunday sermon called for legalizing illegal immigrants and creating a temporary guest worker program in addition to securing the nation's borders.
The Bishop of Orange, Tod D. Brown, ministers a diocese of nearly 1.2 million members. After making the remarks at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange at the end of a confirmation service for 89 high school sophomores from throughout the diocese, churchgoers had mixed, and passionate, responses to the address, reflecting the polarized nature of the issue in Orange County - a highly conservative enclave in the generally liberal political environment of California.
"As Christians, Catholic Christians, we cannot let fear rule us," Brown said. "Christ commands us to love one another - even our enemies. We cannot let the fear of losing jobs, of educating illegal immigrants, and healthcare costs be major reasons for promulgating laws that violate our Christian heritage."
Brown called for policies that rationally address the motives of people entering the U.S. illegally, "so that migrants can remain in their home countries and support themselves and their families." He voiced opposition to policies that sanction people providing humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants, a reference to proposed House legislation from December 2005 that requires churches and charitable organizations to obtain documentation on legal status before providing aid. Similar laws have been proposed locally in numerous cities and states.
The director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. bishops, Kevin Appleby, met more than 300 attorneys and paralegals gathered in Miami May 17-19 for the annual meeting of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, or CLINIC.
Appleby said President George W. Bush himself used the terms "earned path to citizenship," rather than amnesty, in a May 15 speech in which he urged Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law.
He cited several events that he said have helped change the tone of the debate away from the harsh, punitive approach of the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in mid-December. "Now the president of the United States is saying it and that's a victory in itself," Appleby said.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony pledged that church personnel would disobey any law that turned immigrants and those who ministered to them into felons.
The House bill includes provisions that would make people in the United States without documents felons and make those who help them, such as doctors, lawyers, food pantry workers or priests, criminals for "aiding and abetting."
Appleby added that the bishops' vocal stance has educated many Catholics regarding immigration issues, even though not all of them agree with the church's position.
Even if a compromise bill does becomes law this year, comprehensive immigration reform is still a multiyear process. Some provisions and the actual implementation of the law will have to be adjusted as it is tested by reality.
CLINIC is the nation's largest provider of legal assistance to low-income and indigent immigrants. Founded by the U.S. bishops in 1988, CLINIC represents 156 member agencies; most of them are affiliated with diocesan Catholic Charities offices.
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