Catholic leader warns against one-sided policy
By Joe Bauman
Deseret Morning News
Published: January 28, 2008
An enforcement-only approach to immigration does not work and is unjust, according to Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Instead, the law should be reformed so that presently illegal immigrants have a path to citizenship, he said.
Bishop Wester spoke Sunday at the St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center, 170 S. University, giving the Catholic center's annual Aquinas Lecture. He cited the gospel mandate to "welcome the stranger" and quoted from positions taken by the U.S. Catholic bishops on reaching out to immigrants.
"Jesus himself was a refugee who fled the terror of Herod" in the family's flight to Egypt, he said. During his ministry on Earth, Jesus was an itinerant preacher. Today, when Catholics see needy immigrants, they see the face of Christ, he added.
The Catholic Church could say of itself, "Immigrants 'R' Us," Bishop Wester said.
Half of Earth's residents are in poverty, he said. On this continent, impoverished people live in the United States, Mexico and Latin America. Meanwhile, America is much wealthier than the other countries, drawing migrants who are trying to survive and care for their families.
"The overwhelming majority of migrants simply want to work, and they work hard," he added. They make important contributions to the U.S. economy, paying taxes and producing goods.
Undocumented immigrants pay $700 million a year in Social Security tax and do not get Social Security returns, he said. They pay about $3 billion in income tax.
"They contribute more than they consume," he said. Bishop Wester said he agrees with a statement in a recent letter to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune: Immigrants "come here with little, work for little, and ask for little."
In 1998, an estimated 5 million illegal immigrants were in the United States. Today, after expenditure of billions of dollars in enforcement, the total is about 12 million. "It is clear that an enforcement only system does not work," Bishop Wester said.
At the same time, federal law allows only 5,000 non-skilled workers from Mexico to legally migrate to the United States each year. In recent years, 3,000 migrants have died in the deserts trying to enter the country illegally, he said.
"While we post a no-trespassing sign at the border, we erect a help-wanted sign at the workplace," Bishop Wester added. This creates what seems a permanent under-class of illegal workers who can be exploited. He said American citizens can't really want such an unfair system.
"The political season has begun," and some politicians are using the illegal immigration discussion for personal gain, he charged. In some of these attacks, he thinks there is racism and xenophobia.
A "bishops' letter" taking positions on immigration issues says people have a right to migrate when there are just reasons for it, he said. At the same time, the letter points out that countries have a right to protect their borders.
However, he added, these positions are not absolute. A wealthy country like the United States should seek to accommodate immigration as much as possible, according to Bishop Wester. And seeking to survive and care for one's family is a just reason, he believes.
He called for this country to set up a legalization system that would allow an illegal immigrant to become a citizen with the payment of a fine or fees and after working for six or more years.
Commentators have attacked such a program, calling it an amnesty. But Bishop Wester said amnesty is a gift, and a person who pays such penalties as outlined is not getting a gift.
"I would say that we want Americans who are willing to sacrifice for citizenship," he said.
Also, punishment should fit the severity of the law-breaking in terms of the person's intent to harm and the actual harm done. In the case of illegal immigrants seeking to survive and to help their families, there is no intent to hurt Americans and once in this country, they help the economy.
Bishop Wester said the position does not support open borders, but a more humane way to handle immigration for legitimate purposes. If that could happen, Border Patrol agents could focus attention more on drug smuggling and those who would do the country harm, he added.
He does not advocate civil disobedience, Bishop Wester said, but the current immigration laws are unjust.
Bishop Wester asked listeners to write to their U.S. senators to advocate for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the "DREAM Act" under which illegal immigrants who are high school students can attend college or enter the military and have eligibility to become legal.
The Utah Legislature earlier enacted a bill that has similarities to the DREAM Act in that it allows undocumented immigrant college students to pay in-state tuition. However, a bill has been introduced in the Legislature to repeal it.
Another state bill could do away with the driving privilege cards issued to undocumented residents in lieu of driver's licenses so that they can drive legally. He quoted Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto de Latino de Utah, that an audit shows "that undocumented immigrations are doing their best to obey the law" concerning these cards.
Saying that local law enforcement should not be enforcing immigration law, Bishop Wester added, "It is important that our Utah legislators hear from us."
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