WASHINGTON (May 15, 2001) -- U.S. immigration laws should be just, compassionate and respect human rights, according to testimony delivered today on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Bishops' Committee on Migration.
Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, Auxiliary Bishop of Miami and a member of the Migration Committee, today outlined the immigration budget priorities of the nation's Catholic Bishops before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.
"The United States must renew our commitment to welcome newcomers to our shores and to offer them human and compassionate treatment," Bishop Wenski said. "By doing so, we serve our own vital interests and act as an example to other nations."
Bishop Wenski highlighted five broad areas of concern for the Bishops and offered seven specific recommendations to the Subcommittee:
INS Detention Practices
- The INS should actively search for alternatives to detention for deserving aliens. Due to a number of factors, the number of people being detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service has tripled in the last three years, requiring $1 billion this year to cover the costs. Bishop Wenski recommended that the search for alternatives begin by revisiting the mandatory detention laws passed in the last five years and by a clear signal from Congress of its support for alternative programs. Recent evidence from a small pilot project conducted by the INS indicates that a supervised release program saved money and resulted in a higher degree of cooperation by immigrants.
- The INS should fund and permit the operation of "legal orientation" presentations. More than 90 percent of INS detainees go without legal representation, which places them in greater danger of deportation and separation from their families. It also slows the review process and contributes to the long backlog of cases waiting for resolution. Results of a 1998 pilot project indicate that legal orientation presentations to groups of INS detainees benefitted both the INS and the detainees. Detainees received accurate legal information before their hearings before an immigration judge, which also improved the efficiency of the system.
- The Subcommittee should act swiftly on legislation soon to be introduced which would make comprehensive reforms in the manner in which unaccompanied alien children in the United States are treated. Bishop Wenski told the Subcommittee that the Bishops are particularly concerned about this growing population within INS detention. He said these children deserve special treatment and they should not be held "in any type of secure facility unless absolutely necessary for the child's or society's safety." Approximately 30 percent of unaccompanied minor aliens are currently detained in county or municipal juvenile correction centers, despite the fact that many have not committed any crime and do not present disciplinary problems.
- The Subcommittee should act to ensure that family reunification remains the cornerstone of our immigration policy. Bishop Wenski said this can be done by reviewing the family preference system to ensure that it is offering a meaningful opportunity for families to reunify. He also encouraged the Subcommittee to use its oversight authority to ensure the INS is adequately addressing the backlogs in immigration benefits adjudications. He also called for the permanent enactment of Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act which allows eligible undocumented immigrants to adjust their status while here in the United States rather than having to leave the country in order to do so.
- The Subcommittee should ensure that funding for border enforcement include training in civil rights and human rights matters for border patrol officers. Additionally, the Subcommittee should pursue more comprehensive policies for addressing undocumented migration. Bishop Wenski said that increased border patrol efforts in recent years have resulted in increased risks for immigrants determined to enter the United States. More than 1,600 migrants have died in the deserts and mountains of the Southwest since 1995.
- The Subcommittee should authorize a line item, no-year appropriation for the Cuban/Haitian resettlement program in the INS FY 2002 budget. The purpose of the program is to provide resettlement services for undocumented Cubans and Haitians who are subsequently given permission to remain in the United States temporarily ("parole"). Without the program, thousands of Cubans and Haitians paroled by INS would be released directly into communities without any support or supervision, where they would further strain the already overburdened state and local social service systems.
- The INS should be reorganized to separate the adjudication and enforcement divisions with one central authority and give the agency a higher profile within the Department of Justice. In so doing, the Subcommittee must act to ensure that there is adequate funding for the new agency to carry out its service mission and to manage any transition that is necessary.
NOTE: The full text of Bishop Wenski's testimony is available on the Web at: www.nccbuscc.org/comm/archives/2001/01-076a.shtml