Friday, January 13, 2012

A System of Fifty State Immigration Laws Is Untenable

Immigration advocates, Catholic leaders and others gathered in Utah this week to examine the consequences of federal inaction on comprehensive immigration reform and state and local legislation, particularly enforcement-only measures.

Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City delivered January 11 the keynote address at the “Immigration: A 50 State Issue” conference, organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in partnership with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network . He offered a look into the model of the “Utah Compact” and made the case for how, in the absence of federal legislation, state compacts offer an opportunity for people with diverging opinions on immigration to come together and take action for the common good.

Local media such as the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News have reported on the event. Excerpts from Bishop Wester’s welcome address, “Catholic Public Policy and State Compacts” follow.


Time is up for comprehensive immigration reform. But it is the American public, including the Catholics, who will decide the final outcome.

This is an important time in the immigration debate in this nation. While Congress has failed to address this issue, our state legislatures and local governments are not hesitating to attempt to fill the vacuum. Instead of one consistent national policy, we are now confronted with hundreds of State and local immigration policies, the majority of which are harmful to immigrant families and communities.

Rather than looking at the moment as a daunting challenge, we should look upon it as an opportunity. Congress will not act on this issue unless a strong national consensus emerges, where the majority of Americans agree on a path forward and communicate that to their federal, elected officials. The only way that will happen is if the American people are educated on the issues and the realities of immigration, and that can only occur if the issue is right in front of them, being debated in their local communities. Catholics must be part of and help bring about such consensus.

Different laws, particularly enforcement-only initiatives, played out in fifty States are bound to fail, since they will not fix a broken federal immigration system. Immigrants, over 70 percent of whom have been here five years or longer, are not leaving; they are just hiding in fear.

We must continue to fight because of the real suffering that is occurring in immigrant families and communities. There are four million U.S. citizen children who have one or more undocumented parents. The combination of Federal-State enforcement partnerships and federal enforcement actions has led to an unprecedented separation of families. Nearly a quarter of those deported in the last year were part of a family with a U.S.-citizen—most likely a child. They also have led to a record number of deportations over the past three years.

How do we fight these State and Local immigration laws? Here in Utah, we have employed the Utah Compact, which helped us define the debate in this State. Three laws were passed. The Compact principles helped diffuse a much harsher enforcement-only bill.

The compact was an effort to bring leaders from the civic, political, religious, business, legal and law enforcement community around a common set of principles, but from a state perspective. These principles are meant to guide our state leaders who must grapple with the realities of a broken immigration system in our country, and who hopefully do not forget that immigration is a human, moral issue and not simply a political debate.

The Utah compact contains several elements consistent with Catholic teaching:

  • First, it emphasizes that immigration is best addressed on the federal level, rather than on the State and local levels.
  • Second, it acknowledges and supports the need for law enforcement of immigration laws, but with respect for basic human rights.
  • Third, it talks about the break-up of families. Local initiatives have had a harsh impact on family unity. Children are the victims of family separation.
  • Fourth, it highlights the economic contributions of immigrants, and how they work in important industries in Utah. Immigrants, by and large, possess a strong work ethic and enhance our economic life—as consumers and producers of goods.
  • Finally, we live in a free society, in which we enjoy basic constitutional rights guaranteed by our Founding Fathers and our Constitution. Basic human rights are guaranteed by our Creator.

The ultimate goal of a Compact is to build pressure for federal reform. A system of fifty State laws which supplant federal authority is untenable.

We do not believe enforcement alone is the answer. Rather, it must be coupled with humane reforms in our legal immigration system that will allow immigrants to play by a fair and equitably administered set of rules. That is not the case in our current system—only the federal government can achieve this balance.

I am gratified by the fact that there is now also an Iowa Compact which has been released, and an “Arizona Accord,” being developed. I hope that you will consider such a tool in your efforts on the State and local level.

+ Most Reverend John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City

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