Every day, Geoff Scowcroft gets a call from someone in Oregon who's snared in the federal immigration system.
Their woes can keep him up nights.
Scowcroft is head of a small and unusual law firm; Immigration Legal Services is embedded within Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Portland. The firm has a special mandate to work with immigrant victims of assault and domestic violence, plus human trafficking victims, all of whom often are eligible for special remedies to their status problems.
The lawyers also defend other immigrants against questionable deportation and help residents become citizens. Many immigrants who need help have been detained for minor reasons like a traffic violation. Even if the infraction gets dismissed, police have nevertheless been using post-911 provisions to push for deportation.
Catholic Charities decided against offering legal services to people who are charged with serious crimes.
"No one wants to keep violent criminals around," Scowcroft says. "But these days there is more scrutiny for all who are arrested."
Oregon is not Arizona, so Scowcroft does not expect a harsh enforcement law to be passed here. But he says what's needed is federal action to solve the confusing patchwork of laws, including Arizona's and one in the small eastern Nebraska city of Fremont, where employers and landlords can be punished for hiring or renting to undocumented immigrants.
Scowcroft, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Portland, is fed up with how families get hurt by what he calls "this dysfunctional immigration system."
He's seen spouses torn from one another and parents from children. Some youths are forced to go live in a country they have never known or are blocked from joining their parents in the U.S.
"To me, that doesn't seem like promoting family values," Scowcroft says. "It's frustrating and it's heartbreaking many times."
He's a Philadelphia native who grew up in New York and attended Catholic schools. A former rental car company middle manager, he went to law school at Seton Hall at 46 and got into immigration work a decade ago. He'd been inspired by a priest in New Jersey who had a passion for the ministry. Scowcroft worked for Catholic Charities in Newark before coming to Portland four years ago.
There is no dearth of work for immigration lawyers like him. Catholic Charities has five immigration attorneys in Portland and two in Medford. They all have too many cases and must refuse some at times. Scowcroft hopes the department can expand.
He believes heartily in the principles of comprehensive immigration reform as set out by the U.S. Catholic bishops: global anti-poverty efforts, expanded chances for reunifying immigrant families and a temporary worker program that includes a path to citizenship.
One of his credos: "Keep families and human beings in mind."
Catholic immigrants, antsy about entering the legal system, are comforted by the Catholic identity of his department. Last year, Catholic Charities' lawyers helped 3,000 people. "Immigrants are a very positive force in this country," Scowcroft says.
They do the work that needs doing, they pay taxes and they bring cultural richness, he adds, dismissing arguments that undocumented workers exert downward pressure on wages.
He cites statistics that concur: increases in foreign-born workers have no negative effect on the employment of native-born workers.
Scowcroft wrote an op-ed explaining his immigration beliefs in the Oregonian a year ago and the hate mail has only just ended. But he's convinced that most Americans want the kind of reform the bishops want; it's just that a vocal minority makes it seem otherwise.
In answer to those who say the church has no business helping illegal immigrants, Scowcroft appeals to the Gospel of Matthew, which says "welcome the stranger," and to the roots of most Catholics.
"It's a church of immigrants," he says. "Think of Newark — there will be three churches in just a few blocks — the Polish, the Italian and the Irish."
It's human nature, Scowcroft says, for the descendants of earlier immigrants to begrudge the current arrivals.
"To be undocumented is a civil matter, not a criminal matter," he explains. "There is a moral, human dimension not captured in the law."