A call for compassion and a renewed recognition of human dignity highlighted Salt Lake Catholic Bishop John Wester's address Sunday evening on U.S. immigration reform.
Bishop Wester characterized the current body of legislation regulating the flow of migrants into the country as untenable and badly in need of a humanitarian retooling.
"As a nation, we grapple with the thorny issue of immigration," Bishop Wester said. "The U.S. has the right to enforce laws, but we do believe the laws being enforced are badly broken ... and inadequate to address the needs today in migration issues."
Bishop Wester outlined the six-point comprehensive reform plan proposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that, according to Bishop Wester, seeks a common ground between a country's right to regulate migration and an individual's right to migrate. The plan calls for earned legalization, supports federal enforcement, calls for a foreign worker program, asks for a re-examination of the root causes of the immigration problem, creates new family-based protections, and requests a restoration of due process rights the conference says were taken away in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Bishop Wester reminded the group gathered at Salt Lake's Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church that we are a nation of immigrants, and by casting an entire group of people in the mold of "criminals" we deny our roots and abandon the basic tenets of humanity.
"Grace and law can indeed co-exist," Bishop Wester said. "Immigrants are not criminals ... when the law ceases to serve the common good, the good of human beings, we need to change it ... and re-commit ourselves to dignity and solidarity."
Bishop Wester said as rhetoric heats up on the immigration issue there is a tendency among those most strongly in support of an enforcement-only approach to de-humanize the issue. The bishop cited terms like "swarms," "hordes" and "waves" as those used to describe the influx of immigrants in a way that removes the individual from the conversation.
"These terms conjure images of insects, animals and tsunamis ... all dangerous and to be feared," Bishop Wester said. "Each person has dignity, worth and a story to tell ... we need to put a face on immigration."
Though the bishop made no reference to Utah's SB81 a bill passed in the 2008 legislative session that is scheduled to take effect in July 2009 and will create barriers to undocumented immigrants finding jobs or public benefits and creates an immigration enforcement role at the state and local level it was mentioned by an audience member in a question after Bishop Wester's talk. Anna Brower is the development director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union. She asked the bishop, citing SB81, how to bridge what she sees as a disconnect between Utah legislators and the will of the electorate. Bishop Wester said that the change needs to begin at the most basic of levels, as individuals, but elevating the level of political advocacy and engagement would certainly contribute to positive change.
After that talk, Brower said that her group had recently received a grant from the national ACLU organization specifically to work on immigration issues in the state. She said that, in light of the provisions of SB81, part of the work being done was to educate groups involved with immigration issues as to the limits of the new enforcement responsibilities that will be placed in the jurisdiction of state and municipal agencies.
"As an organization, we've been involved in immigration issues for quite a while," Brower said. "In a state with a large immigration population and some very motivated faith-based advocates for positive immigration reform, we're working in the areas we know best to help people protect their civil rights."
Brower said her group is working closely with a variety of groups, including many that are faith-based, in an environment that, after the passage of SB81, is "clearly unfriendly to immigration issues ... from a legal standpoint."
The Rev. Steve Klemz, the pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, said he has been long involved with immigration issues and does not put any faith in state legislators to rectify a system he sees as "completely dysfunctional."
"Obviously, change needs to come from a federal level," the Rev. Klemz said. "Our current policy in Utah continues to shape a climate of fear."The Rev. Klemz also decried provisions of SB81 that will make state and municipal law enforcement agencies "an extension of the immigration department ... used to enforce policy."