Latino Ministries Worried About Immigration Bill

Sister Deirdre Byrne , a physician who works full time at the center, explains to Violeta Garcia, 43, the steps for a recommended surgery.
Sister Deirdre Byrne , a physician who works full time at the center, explains to Violeta Garcia, 43, the steps for a recommended surgery. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Cuban immigrant who walked into the Spanish Catholic Center with cancer was beyond hope. Calmly and sweetly, physician Anna Maria Izquierdo-Porrera showed him how to die with dignity in his Washington area house.

"Whatever we can do here, we do it," Izquierdo-Porrera said in a cramped office piled high with yellow files. "I can't see myself ignoring a person who knocks on my door and says 'I need help.' "

Each year, about 5,000 people walk into the Spanish Catholic Center in Mount Pleasant, seeking assistance at the most difficult times in their lives. Nationwide, Catholic agencies serve more than 300,000 "newcomers" through Catholic Community Services. No questions are asked about their immigration status.

But Roman Catholic bishops say anti-immigration legislation passed recently by the House could put that work in jeopardy, even as the drafters of the proposal say vehemently that those interpretations are wrong and that no harm is intended.

The sticking point in the arguments is language in a section of the House proposals, which the Senate is scheduled to take up next month, that would make it a criminal offense for anyone to "direct or assist" an immigrant with the knowledge that the person crossed the U.S. border illegally. Financial penalties and jail time could follow.

Catholic bishops sharply denounced the legislation in late December when it was passed in the House by Republicans, with a little help from Democrats, after a stormy debate.

Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who drafted the proposal, called Catholic complaints about the bill "a hysteria." He said the proposal merely tweaks current law so that law enforcement agencies can more aggressively target human smugglers.

"Everyone seems to understand the intent," Lungren said. "It is intended to go after smugglers." Speaking to religious opponents, he said: "You say we're going after you. Well, are people coming after you right now, because that's the current law?"

Regardless of the drafter's intent, Catholic leaders say, the law's language is broad, leaving room for zealous prosecutors to target anyone, including doctors, lawyers, teachers and volunteers who work for Catholic Community Services. They do not ask for a client's status, but often that information is volunteered in intimate detail.

"The Catholic bishops and especially those of us here . . . have been very concerned about this," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington. "We're afraid that if this goes through, it could close the door all the way for everybody. You take what is illegal and make it criminal, and that's a frightening thing for us."

It is not just Catholics who are nervous. The Rev. Robin Hoover, pastor of First Christian Church in Tucson, which delivered more than 37,000 gallons of water to Mexicans crossing the Arizona desert, wondered if the proposal would affect his work. Hundreds of immigrants die of thirst each year during desert crossings.

J. Stuart Taylor III, co-pastor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Tucson and a founding member of the group No More Deaths, is worried about his church's mission to save lives of those crossing the desert. The Rev. Joan M. Maruskin of the D.C.-based Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program said the rule as written appears to interfere with Christians whose mission is "to help the stranger."


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