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Bishop Wester calls on Utah Legislature to push Congress to reform nation's immigration laws

SALT LAKE CITY — Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City urged the Utah Legislature Wednesday night to pass a resolution encouraging the state's congressional delegation to lead out on federal solutions to the nation's broken immigration system.

"I call upon our own Legislature, soon to convene, to pass a resolution to direct our Utah congressional delegation to lead the way forward in Congress toward human reform of our laws," Bishop Wester said, speaking on the opening night of a national immigration conference hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

Bishop Wester's opening address for the three-day event at the Radisson Hotel of Salt Lake City was part pep talk for the clergy, lawyers and diocesean workers engaged in advocating for immigrants, "who bear the brunt of our failed immigration system."

As Congress has failed to address the issue of illegal immigration, state legislatures and local governments "are not hesitating to attempt to fill the vacuum," he said.

Advocates for immigrants need to seize upon the opportunity to stand up against a record number of state immigration laws and local law enforcement initiatives.

"It is clear that Congress will not act on this issue unless a strong national consensus emerges, where the majority of Americans agree on a path forward and communicate that to their federal elected officials," Bishop Wester said.

"The only way that will happen is if the American people are educated on the issues and the realities of immigration, and that can only occur if the issue is right in front of them, being debated in their local communities."

The current patchwork of laws being developed across the country — particulary enforcement measures — "are bound to fail since they will not fix a broken federal immigration system," he said.

Immigrants — the vast majority having lived in the United States five years or more — are not leaving, just hiding in fear, Bishop Wester said. In time, the American public will begin to understand the issue must be addressed comprehensively, on a federal level.

As a voice of faith, the Catholic community, must help shape that consensus. "We must also continue to fight because of the real suffering that is occurring in immigrant families and communities," he said.

The Utah Compact and similar documents gaining traction in states such as Iowa and Arizona can be useful tools for advocacy because they advocate federal solutions.

"The compact acknowledges and the supports the need for law enforcement of immigration laws, but with respect for basic human rights," he said.

The compact also speaks to the the issue of enforcement laws breaking up families. "Children are the victims of family separation. As the U.S. bishops have pointed out, a broken immigration system shreds the social fabric of our nation."

Bishop Wester said Christians recently concluded the Christmas season, celebrating the birth of Jesus. As an infant, Jesus and his family fled King Herod as refugees. As an adult, Jesus was an itinerant preacher, a migrant.

"Do not forget that when you are witnessing before the public square on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, you are witnessing for Him, 'for whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, you do unto Me,' " Bishop Wester said.

In a panel discussion Wednesday night, advocates for immigrants the numerous impacts of immigration laws on the Catholic Church.

Strict enforcement measures have impacted the church's ability to bring foreign-born priests, nuns and other religious workers into the United States.

Miguel Naranjo, managing attorney, Center for Religious Immigration and Protection, CLINIC, said the federal requirements were tightened after authorities reported that R-1 visas — for religious workers — were being used fraudulently. Visits to sponsors revealed a 33 percent fraud rate, which Naranjo disputes. "We don't believe, and we didn't believe at the time, that it was that high. Nevertheless, they changed the program."

This is not unique to the Catholic Church. Naranjo said while touring Temple Square on Wednesday, he met a LDS missionary from Japan. She, too, had encountered a long wait for her R-1 visa.

"She said 'It took so long.' That's what we're finding with priests, religious workers, brothers and sisters," Naranjo said.

Emily Butera, senior program officer for the Women's Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. said one of the most troubling aspects of the nation's troubled immigration system is breaking up families when parents are deported and children become wards of states. Parents facing deportation may be detained far from their children. They may not know about proceedings to terminate their parental rights.

"Once a child is in child protective services, the logistics of working that reunification are all but impossible," Butera said.

The Catholic Church has also become concerned about undocumented immigrants who cannot obtain civil marriage licenses to marry, which means a growing number of couples cohabitate and are in conflict with their church's tenets.

The Catholic Church has long maintained that marriage is a fundamental right. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of the interracial marriage debate, said Peggy McCormick, a principal in the Chicago law firm Minsky, McCormick and Hallagan and adjunct professor for the Loyola School of Law.

"The argument was based on religious liberty, not civil rights," McCormick said of the prevailing law on the interracial marriage.