WASHINGTON – The problem that must be solved by immigration reform “is not the immigrants” but “the broken system,” the former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration told a House subcommittee.
In testimony May 22 before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., urged lawmakers to produce legislation that would reform the current immigration system and respect the dignity and rights of immigrants and migrant workers.
He spoke on behalf of the U.S. bishops about comprehensive immigration reform, joining representatives of other religious denominations in giving testimony to the subcommittee.
Before the hearing, Bishop Wenski told Catholic News Service that one of the most important aspects of immigration reform is to ensure that policies would help unite families and not divide them.
He expressed concern in his testimony that the current Senate bill would separate families by replacing the family preference system with a merit-based system and by capping the number of visas for parents of U.S. citizens.
“From the church perspective, a family member from Central America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean or elsewhere could well offer the country as much as a computer software engineer,” he said. “We should not abandon family unity as the cornerstone of our immigration system.”
He also encouraged lawmakers to reconsider the temporary worker program, the reconfiguration of the legal immigrant system and the legalization program in the Senate bill.
On May 23, senators passed an amendment to the bill to reduce the number of temporary workers from 400,000 to 200,000.
Bishop Wenski said the temporary worker program would create an “underclass of workers in our society who are easily exploitable and without full rights and privileges in the society.” In addition, the bishops believe requiring workers to return home for a full year every two years could encourage some to remain illegally.
Instead of the temporary worker program, Bishop Wenski proposed elements of a “new worker visa program” agreed on by both U.S. and Mexican bishops as ways to safeguard the rights of migrant workers.
Bishop Wenski said a new worker program should require migrant workers to be given the same wage levels, benefits and worker protections that other workers are granted.
He also said the workers should be able to sue in federal court for violation of their rights and should be able to earn permanent residency over time.
As part of comprehensive immigration reform, the bishops also believe an earned legalization program for the 12 million undocumented workers is necessary and would benefit national security by creating an opportunity to identify those living in the country illegally.
On the West Coast, the church also is taking action to encourage lawmakers to support fair and just immigration reform.
On May 29, Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius Wang of San Francisco and Auxiliary Bishop Oscar A. Solis of Los Angeles were to deliver 45,000 petitions to the California offices of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in addition to 5,000 petitions previously delivered to the senator.
Before the hearing, Bishop Wenski dismissed the idea that the church is involved in the immigration debate to gain more members, as political pundit Bill O’Reilly had suggested in light of the fact that many Hispanics are Catholic.
“We’re involved in this issue because it touches human lives and that’s what the church cares about – human beings and their souls,” the bishop said.
The church has a strong interest in the current immigration debate because of its history of assisting immigrants and its social teaching, Bishop Wenski said.
“As providers of pastoral and social services to immigrants throughout the nation, we in the Catholic Church witness the human consequences of a broken immigration system every day in our parishes, social service programs, hospitals and schools,” he said. The church sees divided families and exploited workers under the current system, he added.
In the past 100 years, the Catholic Church has developed a body of teachings on migration, the bishop said.
“Pope John Paul II stated that there is a need to balance the rights of nations to control their borders with basic human rights, including the right to work,” Bishop Wenski testified.
At the end of the hearing, members of the subcommittee acknowledged that faith communities have a role to play in the debate because of the close ties between churches and immigrants.
“For me it is very important to hear from the faith community as we go through this debate,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.