Kansas bishops seek federal immigration reform with ‘dignity’

Voters should encourage Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for people already in the country illegally, six Catholic and Protestant leaders from Kansas said in a joint statement Wednesday.

Undocumented immigrants broke the law coming here, the leaders said. But, with the exception of criminals, who should be arrested and deported, most are “God-fearing, church-going, hard-working and family-oriented folk, who just want to have a chance for those things needed to live in human dignity,” they said.

“It is just too simplistic to say to them: ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ It also seems unworkable to deport all undocumented immigrants, telling them to go to the back of the line of applicants seeking legal entrance into our country,” the faith leaders wrote in a joint statement.

The churches hope to provoke a more civil conversation about immigration and encourage people to consider the issue with two values in mind: respect for the law and hospitality for immigrants, said Bishop Scott J. Jones, resident bishop of the Kansas Area of the United Methodist Church, during a news conference at the Statehouse.

“Except for Native Americans, all Kansans are immigrants or the descendents thereof, and we have a deep and long-held view of hospitality for immigrants that we think ought to also drive the debate,” he said.

The Most Rev. Joseph F. Naumann, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, said people’s tendency to demonize people on any side of the debate isn’t helpful.

“We have these competing rights and interests that we have to balance,” he said.

Naumann said his great grandfather immigrated to the United States because he was too short – less than five feet – to qualify for the German military. That was at a time when Germans could immigrate fairly easily, he said.

“Part of the reason that we have this problem of illegal immigration is because our policies have been so restrictive that it makes it relatively impossible to legally immigrate into this country,” he said.

It would be wrong to take advantage of illegal immigrants and subject them to poor working conditions and wages, the statement said.

“Undocumented immigrants who are already living here can also contribute to turning things around, for example, by accepting a penalty for entering the country illegally; obeying laws and paying taxes; and investing in life here by learning English and the ways things are done in the United States, like flying our country’s flag on national holidays,” the religious leaders wrote.

But, they wrote, that doesn’t mean immigrants should forget their native languages and customs.

The leaders said the idea to make a statement was hatched during an annual meeting of bishops and has been in the works for about a year.

It was signed by Naumann; Jones; the Rev. Barry Brinkman, diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Salina; the Most Rev. John B. Brungardt, bishop of the Diocese of Dodge City; the Most Rev. Michael O. Jackels, bishop of the Diocese of Wichita; and Bishop Gerald L. Mansholt, of the Central States Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

The leaders didn’t endorse or criticize any specific laws, such as Kansas’ new voter ID law or the Arizona immigration law that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is Baptist, helped author.

Instead, they said, they want to frame the conversation in hopes of encouraging more civil discourse on the topic of illegal immigration before the 2012 legislative session begins. They plan to send their statement to Gov. Sam Brownback, who is Catholic, and other state and federal lawmakers from Kansas.

Kobach said Wednesday that he expects several bills related to immigration to emerge during the 2012 session. One would repeal a law that allows children of illegal immigrants who attended at least three years of high school in Kansas and graduated to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges. The repeal bill passed in the House last year, but failed to emerge from a Senate committee.

He said he doesn’t expect a single bill that covers all the aspects included in the controversial law in Arizona, which requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they reasonably suspect is there illegally. Rather, Kobach said, he expects several separate bills related to immigration.

The most powerful, he said, would likely be a bill that requires all employers to use the online E-Verify system to check immigration status of employees. Such laws, he said, have led illegal immigrants to leave other states and the country.

“Jobs are the number one magnet for illegal immigration,” he said.

Kobach disagrees with the bishops’ opinion that the federal government should provide a pathway to citizenship, and he said that states have a constitutional right to enact immigration-related policy.

But, otherwise, he said he agrees with sentiments in the bishops’ statement.

“This is an area where reasonable people can disagree,” he said. “There are people with good hearts and Christian values who take different positions on this issue.”

He agreed that most illegal immigrants came here to work and that the issue should be viewed with compassion.

“I think we have to remember, too, that there are millions of American families who are struggling to put food on the table,” he said, “and there are thousands of U.S. citizen workers in Kansas who have been displaced by thousands of illegal immigrants.”

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