Critically needed comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. and throughout the Western Hemisphere should be tied to new laws that promote a sustainable economic development in the region, according to bishops of nine nations who met June 3-6 in Los Angeles.
In a statement, they reaffirmed their commitment to "vulnerable persons who migrate seeking protection from violence or for a better life for themselves and their families." And they called upon "all members of the Catholic community and people of good will in our nations to stand in solidarity with persons on the move and to work for their just and humane treatment."
The goal of this year's Bishops' Regional Consultation on Migration—with the prelates—was to assess the current situation of migrants in their respective countries and develop ways to work together to have a positive impact on migration throughout the region.
The participants—who included the bishops of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States, and diocesan clergy, lay leaders and national office staff—noted a common phenomenon: increased trafficking of youth and women, combined with U.S. migration of youth forced by increasing gang activity and drug trafficking in their native countries.
Many bishops also lamented a scarcity of resources to support the reunification of families and their socioeconomic reintegration.
"Persons on the move should be welcomed with hospitality, service and justice," said the bishops in their statement. "This view is consistent with the Gospels of our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls upon all to 'welcome the stranger,' 'for what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.'"
The bishops acknowledged the right of governments to "ensure the integrity of their borders and the common good of citizenry," but said those goals could be achieved without violating human rights.
They applauded the efforts of those working to protect migrants' human rights and encouraged them to continue educating others about the "harsh realities of migration."
During the meeting, some participants visited nearby detention facilities, while others heard testimony of Cuban and Iraqi refugee families assisted by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles. The Cuban family had unsuccessfully attempted to leave the island by boat in 2005, but finally left Cuba as refugees with the government approval and arrived in Los Angeles three months ago. The Iraqi family of four was forced to leave their country after the head of household had been kidnapped. While trying to get to the United States, this once well-to-do family lost all their property.
In their statement, the bishops urged governments to review "specific issues that should be addressed on a regional basis," including:
-- The need to reform laws in the hemisphere so migrants receive legal protection to work and reside in the U.S. and other countries of destination.
-- Promotion of sustainable economic development addressing the root causes of migration so that people remain in their home communities to support their families.
-- Review and reform of laws to protect migrants, refugees, and especially unaccompanied minors in transit.
-- Increased government and private efforts to end human trafficking.
The bishops were welcomed by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who had met earlier this year with President Barack Obama in his role as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' migration committee. He said he was optimistic Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform, "but it will be a difficult discussion."
One immigration-related concern raised during the regional consultation involved the fact that local legal systems do not protect the rights of U.S.-born minors returning to their parents' home countries. A large percentage of the 570,000 young U.S. citizens who entered Mexico between 2000 and 2010 faced difficulties enrolling in Mexico's public school system because they lack appropriate documentation required by Mexico, reported Miryiam Hazaan, a policy analyst from San Antonio-based Mexican Americans Thinking Together.
Recent research in the western Mexican state of Jalisco showed that when they do enroll, most returning U.S. children are placed two grades below due to their low language fluency, adding to social problems stemming from acclimation. Moreover, Hazaan said, the children do not qualify for health benefits, a big burden for the families who have difficulties "re-integrating" into their communities with stable jobs.
Hazaan said her organization, known as MATT, is making an effort to learn from successful experiences in other countries addressing these issues, including Switzerland, France, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.
Bishop Angel San Casimiro of Alajuela, Costa Rica, said that a comprehensive immigration reform would help alleviate the financial burden of families as they integrate into the legal workforce, decreasing the "families' vulnerability."
But legal status does not guarantee respect for the workers' human rights, he added, stressing the need to start preparing at a pastoral level to receive family members who have been away from their country of origin for an extended time, in order to provide appropriate support.
Bishops Gregorio Rosa Chavez from San Salvador, and Alvaro Ramazzini from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, spoke on the effects of organized crime on youth. Many, they said, are forced to migrate either to reunite with their parents in the United States or are sent here on their own by their parents in order to avoid being recruited by local gangs or drug traffickers.
About 70 percent of minors in Central America and Mexico are fleeing to the U.S., according to data supplied by the U.S.C.C.B.