Bishop Gerald Kicanas
Bishop Gerald Kicanas
Comprehensive immigration reform makes sense on all levels, says the outgoing vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I think what the church is saying is quite reasonable and when people hear it, they like it," Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson told a Portland audience Nov. 22.

In one of his first public talks after losing an election to become president of the bishops' conference, Bishop Kicanas vigorously resumed his call for transforming immigration law.

Bishop Kicanas, 69, finds he must repeat something regularly: comprehensive reform is not amnesty. The plan the bishops support would require undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship to pay fines, learn English and go to the back of the line behind those who went through legal processes.

"Immigrants who are here would pay their debt to society and earn their way," Bishop Kicanas told the Portland group, gathered in All Saints Church for the annual Tobin Lecture on Catholic social teaching.

The immigration reform plan the bishops support would also end the separation of family members because of deportation.    

Bishop Kicanas says that if reform is enacted, enforcement on the border could focus on the real problems — drug running, gun smuggling and human trafficking.

"The power of drug cartels must be broken," he said.

The November election has dampened whatever hope was left for comprehensive reform. However, during Congress' lame duck session, there may be hope for small advances, including the DREAM Act, which would allow young undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship by attending college or serving in the military.

Bishop Kicanas' passion has sparked the ire of people who favor only stringent enforcement, especially on the nation's southern border.

He has received hate mail and threats for his work. The volume increased when he spoke out against Senate Bill 1070, the now-declawed Arizona law that would have allowed police to investigate immigration status during unrelated encounters with citizens.

The white-bearded bishop refuses to demonize those who attack him. He says most of the interlocutors are good people who simply don't have all the information and who may be altered by fear spread via media.

"Fear does difficult things to people and it brings out our worst," the bishop said."The sound bite has taken over the conversation. And the sound bite is, 'You're for amnesty,' or 'What part of illegal don't you understand?'"

Bishop Kicanas contends that Senate Bill 1070 was not so much about prejudice as it was about frustration that nothing has been done yet to reform immigration.  

As spiritual leader of a large diocese that borders Mexico, he has personal experience. He decribed his visits to a Mexican town that serves as a staging area for crossings. There, he saw beleagured migrants warehoused in triple bunks, preparing to make an attempt despite hardship and exploitation along the way.  

"When I asked them why they keep coming, they said, 'We have no choice. There is nothing for us in our home country. We have to improve our lives,'" the bishop told the Portland listeners.

He related stories of individual immigrants, including a Honduran man who made a three-month trek just to get to the border and was beaten by police all along. The man chose to focus on the good people who helped him.

Another migrant was coming north to make money for his family, but fell off a train as he was trying to board, losing his legs. Dejected, he felt he would be a burden to his loved ones, not a help.  

"They are people like us, seeking a decent way of life for themselves and their families," the bishop explained.

Bishop Kicanas, new chairman of Catholic Relief Services, says CRS is working in Mexico and other countries to create business opportunity. Improving conditions in countries of origin can both serve the poor relieve immigration pressures on the U.S., he said.  

In her introduction of the bishop, Archdiocese of Portland Chancellor Mary Jo Tully called him "someone who genuinely believes in the worth and dignity of others."

While in Oregon, the former seminary professor took up his old calling, teaching in a symposium at Mount Angel Seminary.  

Scripture is clear on the need to achieve justice for those on the margins and church teaching is based on the dignity and sanctity of life from conception to natural death, said Bishop Kicanas, explaining that immigrants are no exception. The Vatican and bishops all over the world have taught "consistently and persistently" that the world must be attentive to the needs of migrants, he said.  

"We cannot as a nation continue to kick the problem down the road," Bishop Kicanas concluded. "A federal solution is needed and needed now."