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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 7, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 9Oakland, CA

Bishops take issue with Bush plan for immigration reform

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A White House proposal for immigration reform is “a step in the wrong direction,” though a House bill comes closer to offering what’s needed, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee in a letter to Congress.

Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee told a conference on immigration law and policy she hopes that before the August recess a bill will come out of Congress that takes a comprehensive approach to problems, including giving college students a chance to legalize their status as well as dealing with enforcement, temporary workers and legalization.

In a letter to Congress released April 23, Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, reiterated the bishops’ support for legislation that includes what he called a viable path to permanent residency for people in the country illegally, a visiting worker program, a plan to address backlogs in family reunification immigration, restoration of due process rights and policies that address the root causes of migration.

Bishop Barnes said H.R. 1645, the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, or STRIVE Act, so far comes closest to a just and humane reform bill. He raised concerns about some provisions, such as passport fraud sections he said would place bona fide refugees at risk and penalties for people who harbor and smuggle immigrants.

“Although the section would exempt religious organizations from some of its penalties, it would place other groups and individuals, including labor unions, at risk of prosecution for providing basic needs assistance to undocumented immigrants,” he said in his letter.

A separate proposal floated by the White House, which has not been formally released, raises serious concerns, Bishop Barnes said.

“As we understand it, the administration’s proposal would effectively leave any immigrants seeking to legalize their status in a permanent underclass and would encourage family breakdown in immigrant communities,” he wrote.

Bishop Barnes said the Bush administration proposal would cut the number of visas for family reunification “as well as impose fines and wait times for legalization that are far beyond what most immigrants could bear.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law, said her staff calculated that under an administration proposal for what it calls “Z” visas, it would cost a family of five $64,000 to apply for legalization.

“This is not a practical policy,” Lofgren said. “Janitors don’t have $64,000 for fees.”

“Legalization has to be realistic or it won’t work,” she said at an April 24 immigration law and policy conference. sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute, Georgetown University Law Center and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC.

Bishop Barnes’ letter explained that under the “Z” visa plan, people applying to legalize their status would have to pay $3,500 every three years to renew their visas and another $10,000 once they become eligible for permanent residency. It would be a multiyear process to reach the point of being eligible for permanent residency.

He said such high costs would discourage immigrants from applying, making them vulnerable to exploitation and relegating them to “a permanent underclass of residents without full rights in our society.”

He also took issue with the administration proposal to shift from the current family-based immigration system to one based on employment. It would eliminate or limit four categories of preferences for adult children, siblings and parents of U.S. citizens and some children of permanent residents.

Lofgren said she wants the bill that comes out of her committee to avoid mistakes made in major immigration legislation of 1986 and 1996, by protecting the wages of U.S. citizen workers and ensuring that immigrants are not exploited.

She also said she would insist that it include the DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which would allow college-age illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to legalize their status and attend state schools at in-state tuition rates.

Current laws that bar immigrants from entering the country legally for up to 10 years if they are caught trying to come in illegally also need to be changed, Lofgren said.

Historically, 80 percent of immigrants are “circular,” meaning they come to this country to work for a while, but return home, she explained. But the bar on legal entry discourages that pattern, effectively driving illegal immigrants and their families to hide from authorities, she said.

“This is so harsh in comparison to the offense, that it undercuts the rule of law,” she said. “We need punishments that fit the administrative violation.” Most violations of immigration law are technically civil offenses, not crimes.

Lofgren was cautious about predicting success in passing a bill this year, which she said would have to happen before Congress recesses in August. Her committee and other committees have been holding a series of hearings on immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the Senate will take up immigration the last two weeks of May. There is not a specific bill on which lawmakers in the Senate are focused.

Lofgren said she expects some parts of the STRIVE Act will be useful as her committee marks up a bill, but that first the Senate has to come up with something that can pass on that side of the Capitol. At a minimum, she said there’s wide recognition in both houses, the White House and in both parties that the current state of immigration has to change.

While the discussion about how to fix things is heated, she said, there’s nobody, “not the screamers or the mumblers, who thinks the current situation is a good one.”


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