WASHINGTON (September 27, 2006)–In a letter to the Senate on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Gerald R. Barnes, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, urged all Senators to oppose H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Acknowledging the rights of all nations to secure their borders, Bishop Barnes said "the best way to secure the border is by enacting comprehensive immigration reform."
H.R. 6061 is likely to be considered by the Senate later this week.
In the letter, Bishop Barnes said H.R. 6061 could contribute to smuggling-related violence along the border as well as lead to an increase in the number of migrant deaths. The letter also said the legislation would not solve the problem of illegal immigration and would send the wrong signal to Mexico, a peaceful neighbor of the United States, and the world community.
"We oppose H.R. 6061 because we believe it would not solve the problem of illegal immigration," Bishop Barnes wrote. "Indeed, we believe it would create more problems than it would solve." The Bishop said enactment of H.R. 6061 could "drive those seeking to cross the border to take more remote and dangerous routes, resulting in more unnecessary and tragic migrant deaths in the American desert." Bishop Barnes cited a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which chronicled an alarming rise in migrant deaths since a border crackdown by the government began over ten years ago.
Bishop Barnes added that H.R. 6061 could result in an increase in smuggling-related border violence. Pointing to a rise in such violence in recent years, he said the U.S. bishops were "troubled" that H.R. 6061 "would cause smugglers to redouble their efforts to penetrate open portions of the border, leading to more violence against Border Patrol agents, local police enforcement, and community residents."
Bishop Barnes also expressed concern that the border fence contained in H.R. 6061 would be viewed in this hemisphere and overseas as "a sign of fear, weakness, and isolation, not strength and engagement." "It also would undercut our moral authority to request other nations to accept war refugees, for example, or other vulnerable populations," he said.
Below is a copy of the letter.
September 26, 2006
Washington, D.C. 20510
I ask that you oppose passage of H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which is currently before the full U.S. Senate.
As you know, H.R. 6061 would authorize the construction of up to 700 miles of fencing and barriers along our southern border. It also would grant the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unprecedented authority to "take all actions necessary and appropriate…"to…"prevent all unlawful entry into the United States."
The U.S. Catholic bishops recognize the right of all nations to control their borders and regulate entry into their countries. Moreover, the U.S. Catholic bishops support efforts to ensure that U.S. authorities have the means to control U.S. borders effectively, so long as enforcement strategies and mechanisms are applied humanely and protect human life. However, we oppose H.R. 6061 because we believe it would not solve the problem of illegal immigration. Indeed, we believe it would create more problems than it would solve.
More specifically, we fear it would lead to increased exploitation and deaths of migrants attempting to enter the United States and an increase in smuggling-related violence directed at Border Patrol agents and others. We also are concerned that granting virtually unbridled authority to DHS to prevent illegal entry in the United States, as H.R. 6061 would do, could result in human rights abuses against migrants and adversely impact local border communities.
We are concerned foremost that the border fence provided in H.R. 6061 could drive those who may seek to cross the border to take more remote and dangerous routes, resulting in more unnecessary and tragic migrant deaths in the American desert. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that border crossing deaths have doubled since 1995, about the time the federal government initiated a series of enforcement initiatives designed to stop illegal crossings at ports-of-entry. The large majority of these deaths have occurred in the Arizona desert, where, according to GAO, migrants have been redirected from traditional urban areas like San Diego and El Paso. Since 1995, nearly 3,000 persons have died at our southern border. We fear that the fence contemplated in H.R. 6061 would greatly increase this tragic toll.
Another possible result of the fence provided for in H.R. 6061 is an increase in smuggling-related violence along the southern border. According to the Department of Homeland Security, border violence related to smuggling and human trafficking has risen dramatically over the past several years. During Fiscal Year 2005, attacks against Border Patrol agents rose over 100 percent. Violence between rival smuggling operations has also occurred within local communities along the border. We are troubled that H.R. 6061 would cause smugglers to redouble their efforts to penetrate open portions of the border, leading to more violence against Border Patrol agents, local police enforcement, and community residents.
We are deeply concerned about the provision in the legislation which would give the DHS Secretary virtually unchecked authority to prevent unlawful entries into the country. While we have great respect and admiration for the U.S. border patrol and other immigration enforcement personnel for the difficult job they perform, we fear that this provision could lead to unintended consequences, such as human rights abuses and infringements upon the rights of legal residents and U.S. citizens in local border communities. We are concerned that such broad and vague authority could excuse the use of abusive enforcement tactics or prevent the prosecution of any mistreatment of migrants by enforcement authorities who are either ill-trained or who lack the respect for human dignity that the great bulk of enforcement personnel possess.
Finally, we believe that the fence provided for in H.R. 6061 would send the wrong signal to our peaceful neighbor Mexico and to the world community. As Americans, we care about how our country is viewed internationally. We feel that many other Americans care as well. A border fence might be viewed in this hemisphere and overseas as a sign of fear, weakness, and isolation, not strength and engagement. It would also undercut our moral authority to request other nations to accept war refugees, for example, or other vulnerable populations.
In our view, the best way to secure our border is to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform should combine strong but reasonable enforcement efforts with measures creating legal avenues for both employment and family-based migration, including a path to citizenship for deserving migrants who are already here. Under such a scenario, migrants would enter through ports-of-entry legally and safely, drying up the market for smugglers. It also would allow our government to better monitor who is in the country and who is coming, freeing up law enforcement to pursue those with nefarious intent, such as drug traffickers.
For the aforementioned reasons, I ask that you oppose H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Instead, I ask that you support the enactment of a comprehensive immigration reform measure before the end of the year.
Thank you for your consideration of our views.
Most Reverend Gerald R. Barnes
Bishop of San Bernardino
Chairman, USCCB Committee on Migration