Sunday, March 26, 2006

Bush and Chaput

A panel of 15 religious, business, political and agricultural leaders urged President George W. Bush to push for comprehensive immigration legislation in a March 23 White House meeting.

Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who was one of three religious leaders at the session, told Catholic News Service afterward that the president voiced support for policies that reflect the goals of the Catholic bishops' Justice for Immigrants campaign and their concerns about pending legislation.

"If Congress handled things the way that meeting was handled," with its spirit of cooperation and respect for a wide range of immigration-related concerns, "we'd be in good shape," Archbishop Chaput said.

The Senate was scheduled to resume consideration of proposals for immigration changes the last week of March.

Bush has intermittently pushed for comprehensive immigration reform since his first year in office, but the White House has until recently kept some distance from the ongoing debate in Congress. A bill that passed in the House in December deals only with enforcement, including some provisions that the Catholic Church and others strongly oppose, such as criminalizing the act of aiding illegal immigrants.

Earlier in March the Senate Judiciary Committee began discussing a wide range of possible legislation, including bills that mirror the House version. Some Senate bills' enforcement provisions stop short of criminalizing those in the country illegally. They also include provisions that would permit illegal immigrants to apply to regularize their status, allow for the admission of temporary workers and make it easier for families to be reunited.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was pushing for a bill to come to the Senate floor by the end of March.

Archbishop Chaput said the president is very aware of the complications of trying to pass a law that meets security and employment needs, and that deals fairly with a population of 12 million illegal immigrants, some of whom have been in the United States for 20 years and some who are newly arrived.

While Bush didn't throw his support behind any particular version of legislation, Archbishop Chaput said everyone in the meeting, including the president, "was very enthusiastic about making sure that the debate is not taken over by extremists."

In remarks to the press after the private meeting, Bush said that in addition to enforcing borders, part of the plan should include a guest worker program that encourages immigrants to register with the U.S. government, "so that we know who they are." Such a plan "says to them, 'If you're doing a job an American won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job,'" Bush said.

Bush urged members of Congress and others who "like to comment on this issue to make sure the rhetoric is in accord with our traditions."

"When we conduct this debate it must be done in a civil way," he said.

One of the leading House proponents of tightening border controls and criminalizing the act of being in the country illegally is Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican. In February, Tancredo issued a press release saying churches, including the Catholic Church, that were voicing opposition to the House bill were misrepresenting the beliefs of "a majority of churchgoers."

Archbishop Chaput said Tancredo's high profile on the subject has underscored how divided people in Colorado are on the topic of immigration and how important the church's Justice for Immigrants campaign is.

"We need to educate, educate, educate," he said.

Once people hear about the complexity of the issue, the archbishop said, specifically about the economic and human issues in addition to concerns about controlling the borders, they are willing to consider broad approaches.

"We're trying our best," he said. "People's minds are changing."

Full details of the U.S. Catholic Church's position on various immigration issues can be found online at: www.justiceforimmigrants.org.