Bishop John Wester

Utah's Catholic bishop told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that workplace raids by federal immigration officials seeking to round up undocumented workers are ineffective and inhumane, and he called for a halt to the practice, which he said tears families apart.

Bishop John Wester spoke as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, reading a statement issued by the bishops that noted an "unprecedented emphasis on enforcement-only initiatives designed to create an atmosphere of fear in immigrant communities."

Since proposed immigration reform died in Congress in June 2007, immigration officials have used the raids as a high-profile enforcement tool, he said.

The bishops don't question the right or duty of government to enforce immigration laws, he said, but they believe workplace raids are poor public policy. Bishop Wester asked President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security to "please abandon them."

"We've witnessed firsthand the devastation" as children — many of whom are U.S. citizens — are separated from their parents, he said, noting Catholic social service agencies have taken up the task of helping such families find housing, food, employment, clothing and other life necessities in the aftermath of government raids.

He said Pope Benedict recently urged attention to the issue of immigration and the need to protect families, examining the root causes of why people leave their homelands to find work.

Bishop Wester was one of several Catholic bishops to address reporters Wednesday, a day after he was part of a similar press conference held by an interfaith organization that is also seeking comprehensive immigration reform.

That group, called "Tour of the Faithful: Moral Voices Unite for Immigration Reform," announced an initiative involving 18 different events across the country in the coming weeks, seeking to garner support among people of faith to push for reform in Congress.

Speakers at that event noted their faith communities are tired of "seeing raids on TV and workers being carted away on the evening news. We're tired of the hateful speech of politicians and candidates scapegoating immigrants for political gain."

Bishop Wester told reporters Tuesday that immigration is receiving little attention in the presidential campaign "and negative attention in the media," noting undocumented workers "continue to be scapegoated for (America's) economic ills."

Americans "can't continue to accept the labor of immigrants while also undermining their basic human dignity. Faith communities have the responsibility of defending basic human rights," Bishop Wester said.

Faith leaders are calling attention to the issue in the hope that a new Congress and new president will address the issue early next year, Bishop Wester said.

Catholic bishops have been working with Homeland Security, "trying to make our case that enforcement raids are not the way to go about enforcing the laws," he said.

If the raids continue, the bishops asked Homeland Security to pledge to do several things to mitigate the human costs including:

• Refrain from any raids in churches, hospitals, community health centers, school and other community-based organizations that provide charitable services.

• Allow primary caregivers to be released following a raid to care for their children.

• Facilitate access to "meaningful legal representation."

• Make sure enforcement actions are conducted in a way that preserves basic human dignity.

• Institute mechanisms to allow family members to remain together and to locate each other during and following an enforcement action.

While many religious leaders want to see Congress create a legal path to citizenship for some 12 million undocumented workers already in the U.S., others — particularly white evangelical Christian leaders — oppose such moves.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said some of those who oppose reform are "the major proponents of what has been identified as family values." They see the issue primarily as one of national security, he said.

The Rev. Rodriguez said Hispanic evangelicals agree there is a need to protect the borders, but that it needs to be done "in a way that resonates with our American value system of compassion, mercy and grace, at the same time facilitating a platform for those who want to come legally."