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Catholic bishops, advocates to meet in Salt Lake to discuss immigration reform

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SALT LAKE CITY — Fixing the nation's broken immigration system is a federal responsibility, says Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

But increasingly, the debate has shifted to state legislatures and local government, where legislative bodies have developed policies ranging from strict enforcement measures to guest worker programs.

"We've got to be able to adjust and be flexible to what is going on the ground," said Bishop Wester said in an interview Tuesday in advance of a national conference on immigration reform in Salt Lake City. The three-day event is hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services and Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.

"What we'd like to do is move the focus back to the federal government," he said.

The conference, “Immigration: A 50-State Issue, A Focus on State and Local Immigration Initiatives,” gets under way Wednesday evening at the Radisson Hotel.

Utah was selected to host the conference, in part, because of the Utah Compact. The document outlined five principles to guide Utah's immigration debate during the 2011 legislative session. The compact acknowledges that immigration is primarily a federal responsibility but policies should take into consideration the needs of families, the economy, a free society and law enforcement. The document was signed by a wide array of business, civic and religious leaders.

Utah's experience demonstrated what can happen when people of good will come together, "albeit we have differing points of view," Bishop Wester said.

The respective parties came together and essentially said, "OK, we have a real issue here. What are we going to do about it? These are real human beings here. This isn't some abstract political debate. These are real human beings who are suffering," Bishop Wester said.

Conference organizers also recognize that Utah is a destination state for many immigrants, Bishop Wester said. "In our own Catholic Church, 80 percent of Catholics speak Spanish. That's an incredible statistic."

Utah's recent experiences are also instructive from the perspective that immigration cannot be viewed simply as a political issue. "You can't look at it from one lens, from one point of view," he said.

Bishop Wester will provide the keynote address the opening night of the conference, which will be limited to registered participants and invited guests.

The conference will examine enforcement-only approaches, such as those attempted in Arizona and Alabama. Participants will also explore federal-state enforcement partnerships, such as the Secure Communities program, and impact on local immigrant communities. Representatives of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are scheduled as presenters.

“While the solution lies at the federal level, the conference should provide participants the knowledge and skills to engage the issue locally,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Wester said the Catholic Church, among many voices, advocates for changes to federal laws that "meet the needs of the country and meet the needs of the immigrant today."

All people should be able to live in dignity, raise their families in safety, worship according to their choices and be educated, he said. "This is based, really, on gospel values — loving thy neighbor as ourselves, listening to their story."

The United States, as a nation, has been very blessed, Bishop Wester said.

"We advocate using those blessings, those graces, for the good of our country and the good of our immigrants," he said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com