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Immigrant plight spurs bishops to ask for meeting with Ashcroft

Warwick, R.I.

Catholic efforts to influence the nation’s immigration and refugee policy have been set back by the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services.

The bishops, alarmed by xenophobic trends of recent legislation and executive orders, have requested a meeting with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to discuss civil liberties for immigrants in the wake of the administration’s anti-terrorist campaign.

On the table for discussion with Ashcroft are “the refugee protection issue and the protection of due process and civil liberties for non-citizens,” said Mark Franken, executive director of the bishops’ migration and refugee office.

Franken and other policy advocates from the U.S. Catholic Conference attended the first regional training for implementation of the bishops’ recent pastoral “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.” The conference was held here Nov. 27 and 28.

“We are in the largest era of immigration in our history,” said Geri Garvey, office coordinator for the bishops’ migration office. “We have surpassed the late 1800s.”

The pastoral, written in November 2000, articulates the need for American Catholics to embrace an increasingly immigrant church.

The diversity of America’s newcomers is staggering. For example, the Boston archdiocese’s Office of Ethnic Ministry, established in 1990, reports that it is ministering to 31 different immigrant groups. Using Microsoft Power Point, glossy brochures and flow charts, conference speakers presented the how-tos of Catholic inclusiveness to diocesan leaders and prelates. Bishops from eight of New England’s 12 dioceses attended.

The conference, scheduled long before Sept. 11, was held at a time when U.S. legislation is increasingly inhospitable to “non-citizens” residing here.

“Obviously the environment has changed drastically,” said Kevin Appleby, U.S. bishops’ director of migration and refugee policy. “The brunt of Homeland Security has been focused against those of non-citizen status: immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and non-immigrants who are here on visitors visas.”

Appleby points to the anti-terrorism bill and the establishment of military tribunals as examples of recent actions undermining an immigrant’s right to due process.

Although the Bill of Rights does not grant foreigners the right to enter the United States, once here immigrants are entitled to some broad-based constitutional protections. Notable among these is due process -- the right to be treated fairly in a deportation or criminal court hearing.

In mid-November, President Bush issued an executive order that would allow military tribunals to try non-citizens accused of terrorism. Unlike civil courts, the tribunals would not require a trial by jury or a unanimous verdict even when the defendant is facing the death penalty. Earlier in the month, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, also known as the anti-terrorism bill. Under this new legislation, non-citizens suspected of terrorism can be detained for seven days without charges.

Maureen Master, policy adviser for U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, said the Catholic Conference, though “not pleased” with the final version of the bill, sees it as “a huge improvement” over the administration’s original draft. “The administration wanted to detain people indefinitely without charges if they were suspected of terrorism,” she said. “It was just so vague that they would have been able to pick people off the street and there would be no judicial review.”

Despite the bill’s seven-day limit, many non-citizens, rounded up in the wake of Sept. 11, continue to remain in detention without charge.

Helping even the illegals

Only 10 percent of the 150,000 Brazilians residing in the Boston archdiocese are officially “legal,” said Fr. Vincento Rosato, archdiocesan director of Ethnic Apostolates. Most entered the country legally and remain in the United States with expired visas, he said.

Legalizing the undocumented, particularly those who own property and otherwise contribute to their communities, according to the pastoral, has been a longstanding position of U.S. bishops. Without condoning undocumented migration, the bishops have publicly said the church would assist needy people residing in this country, even if they are here illegally.

Between 6.5 and 8 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, according to U.S. Census 2000. Appleby estimates that 40 percent are Mexican, and, of these, 80 percent are Catholics. Some parishes in the Northeast report that 20 to 25 percent of their parishioners are people without papers.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee admission program. Franken said the Bush administration was seven weeks late this year in issuing its presidential determination -- a statutory document giving the U.S. refugee quota for the upcoming fiscal year.

“In the absence of that document from Oct. 1 until the third week of November, no refugees were coming in,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Catholic Conference recommended a quota of 95,000 refugees for fiscal year 2002. The Bush administration is allowing 70,000 entrants. But Franken doubts if that many will actually enter the United States.

In their pastoral, the bishops describe the global plight of refugees as “the migration of the desperate.” Distinct from other categories of immigrants, refugees leave their homeland unwillingly. International and U.S. law define a “refugee” as someone who has fled past persecution or has a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Iran, Jordan and Pakistan are the top three countries providing asylum, according to a 1998 World Refugee Survey of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. In Iran, the refugee population, which was slightly under 2 million, is likely to increase as a result of the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Palestinians comprise the world’s largest refugee group, Afghans the second.

The United States has accepted 5 million refugees since 1951. Of these, Catholic agencies have resettled 1 million. Currently, 106 dioceses have resettlement coordinators, Franken said.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

Related Web sites

Immigration and Naturalization Service

U.S. Committee for Refugees

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001