Critically-needed comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. and throughout the Western Hemisphere should be tied to new laws that promote a sustainable economic development in the region, according to bishops of nine nations who met last week in Los Angeles.In a written statement, bishops of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States reaffirmed their commitment to “vulnerable persons who migrate seeking protection from violence or for a better life for themselves and their families.” And they called upon “all members of the Catholic community and people of good will in our nations to stand in solidarity with persons on the move and to work for their just and humane treatment.”The statement came at the conclusion of the June 3-6 Bishops’ Regional Consultation on Migration held at Sacred Heart Retreat House in Alhambra. The goal of the annual meeting is to assess the current situation of migrants in their respective countries and develop ways to work together to positively impact migration throughout the region.At the meeting, participants — who included diocesan clergy and lay leaders and national office staff, as well as bishops — noted a common phenomenon: increased trafficking of youth and women, combined with migration of youth to the U.S. forced by increasing gang activity and drug trafficking in less fortunate areas in their native countries.Many bishops also lamented a scarcity of resources to support the reunification of families and their socio-economic re-integration.“Persons on the move should be welcomed with hospitality, service and justice,” said the bishops in their statement. “This view is consistent with the Gospels of our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls upon all to ‘welcome the stranger,’ ‘for what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me’.”The bishops acknowledged the right of governments to “ensure the integrity of their borders and the common good of citizenry,” but stated that those goals could be achieved without violating human rights.They applauded the efforts of persons and institutions working to protect migrants’ human rights and encouraged them to continue educating others about the “harsh realities of migration.” During the first day of the four-day meeting, the visiting bishops, together with personnel of different USCCB offices that work with migrants, learned firsthand of migrants’ struggles. Some participants visited detention facilities in Orange and San Bernardino Counties, and a group heard testimony of Cuban and Iraqi refugee families assisted by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles.The head of the Matos family had unsuccessfully attempted to leave Cuba by boat in 2005, but the family finally left the island as refugees with the government’s approval, and arrived in L.A. three months ago. The family of four from Iraq was forced to leave their country after the head of household had been kidnapped. In the process of journeying to the U.S., which included a long stay in Jordan, this once well-to-do family lost all their property.In the statement, the bishops urged all governments to review “specific issues that should be addressed on a regional basis,” including:—the need to reform laws so migrants receive legal protection to work and reside in the U.S. and other countries of destination; —promotion of sustainable economic development addressing the root causes of migration so that people remain in their home communities to support their families; —review and reform of laws to protect migrants, refugees, and especially unaccompanied minors in transit; —and increased government and non-government efforts to eradicate the scourge of human trafficking.‘A difficult discussion’The bishops were welcomed by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who said he was optimistic that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform, after his meeting earlier this year with President Barack Obama, in his role as president of the USCCB’s Migration Committee. “But,” he said, “it will be a difficult discussion.”The archbishop, who presided at a June 4 welcome Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, urged participants to promote parishioners’ involvement in raising awareness about immigration issues.Msgr. David O’Connell and Trinitarian Father Francisco Valdovinos, South Los Angeles pastors, joined Jaime Huerta, associate director of the L.A. Office of Life, Justice and Peace, in a brief presentation of the work done by the clergy in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, including meetings with Congressional representatives whose districts include their parishes.During the meeting, bishops and representatives of nonprofits that provide assistance to migrants or promote law reform had the opportunity to exchange facts, concerns and offer potential solutions. One concern involved families who return to their home countries; local legal systems, several officials noted, do not protect the rights of U.S.-born minors returning with their parents.A large percentage of the 570,000 young U.S. citizens who entered Mexico between 2000 and 2010 have faced difficulties enrolling in Mexico’s public school system because they lack appropriate documentation required by Mexico’s laws, reported Miryiam Hazaan, a policy analyst from San Antonio-based Mexican Americans Thinking Together (MATT). And recent research in the western Mexican state of Jalisco showed that when they do enroll, most returning U.S. children are placed two grades below due to their low language fluency; that adds to social problems stemming from acclimation.Additionally, said Hazaan, the children do not qualify for health benefits, a big burden for the families who have difficulties “re-integrating” into their communities with stable jobs.MATT, a bi-national nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between Mexico and the U.S., is working actively with the Mexican government, said Hazaan, to amend public policy so that the impact of returning families on the economy is considered in the country’s national development plan.Hazaan said MATT is making an effort to learn from successful experiences in other countries in the world addressing these issues, including Switzerland, France, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.Receiving ‘returning’ familiesIn his remarks, Bishop Ángel San Casimiro of Alajuela, Costa Rica, said that a comprehensive immigration reform would help alleviate the financial burden of families as they integrate into the legal workforce, decreasing the “families’ vulnerability.” But he admitted that legal status does not guarantee respect for the workers’ human rights. He stressed the need to start preparing at a pastoral level to receive family members who have been away from their country of origin for an extended time, in order to provide appropriate socio-emotional and spiritual support.“The redefinition of families with an absent father or mother with children in their native countries who have been in custody of other relatives could generate crisis in some of the 46,000 [Costa Rican] households who have at least one relative residing in the U.S.,” the bishop said.He cited the phenomenon of “religious migration” prompted by the influence of non-Catholic churches or denominations in other countries, which “are a sign of the distance between the Catholic Church and migrants who have endured harsh conditions.”On a positive note, he shared how Jesuit- and Dominican-run migrant programs have helped undocumented migrants in their reintegration to society in Costa Rica. Such advocacy, he said, has contributed to the approval of measures such as the “Transitorios Migratorios” (Migrants in Transition), which helped hundreds of migrants to gain a legal status.Bishop San Casimiro said the regional church needs to re-evaluate its pastoral care to migrants and review the implementation of strategies with political impact on the life of migrants.Mexican Bishop Guillermo Ortiz Mondragón provided a list of guiding actions that local churches should follow to prevent and combat human trafficking, kidnapping and other criminal activities. Such actions include a strengthening of the network and infrastructure of the Casas de Migrantes (Migrant Homes) in the region; providing an efficient representation of migrants before government agencies; coordination of activities with nonprofits and government agencies in charge of migrant protection; promotion of education programs for the reintegration of migrants to society; and insuring that authorities comply with the legal process for migrants’ reintegration.Effects of crime on youthBishops Gregorio Rosa Chávez from San Salvador, El Salvador, and Álvaro Ramazzini from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, centered their presentation on the effects of organized crime on youth. Many, they said, are forced to migrate either to re-unite with their parents in the U.S. or are sent here on their own by their parents in order to avoid being recruited by local gangs or drug traffickers.About 70 percent of minors in Central America and Mexico are fleeing to the U.S., according to USCCB data. Of those — whose average age is 16 — 70 percent are males and 30 percent females.Organized crime is increasing its territorial wars throughout Guatemala, said Bishop Ramazzini, forcing families to migrate to Guatemala City, the capital, where there is little infrastructure to serve them.He also mentioned the increased phenomenon of “feminization of migration,” in which adolescents or grandmothers of the deported are forced to join the workforce in order to help sustain the recently arrived relatives.“How can we help depoliticize the issue of gang activity?” should be a question for all Catholics to reflect and act upon, Bishop Rosa said.“Prevention is much cheaper than the money spent by the private sector and government in reducing organized crime,” he said. “We need to change our reality by offering education programs, which the church is promoting, but we need to work together with government agencies.”Citing Pope Francis, Bishop Rosa said the church needs to become a “poor church for the poor. It all starts by living a simple lifestyle [within the Church],” he suggested, which helps people better accompany the poor and offer solutions against poverty.Bishops and representatives of Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama and Canada also expressed their concerns about the scarcity both of services provided to migrants in their countries and laws to protect them.Migration flow to the U.S. from Nicaragua has reduced considerably, said representatives of Caritas in the Central American nation. Today most Nicaraguans migrate to Costa Rica or Panama or Spain (more than 500,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica).The Church in the Dominican Republic is facing huge challenges with massive expulsions of Haitian immigrants, said representatives. From more than 200,000 immigrants of Haitian descent, only 22,000 are in a process of documentation and almost 40 percent live in poverty or extreme poverty. They urged the Church to be more pro-active in developing a campaign to welcome immigrants and promote intercultural programs.Mark Martin, director of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees, said that in the past five years the amount of refugees to Canada has decreased, most hailing from China, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Croatia and Democratic Republic of Congo. About 350,000 temporary migrants live in Canada and about 2,000 have joined the voluntary return program.Martin said many people without legal status go to churches seeking sanctuary support programs, which the “church is not prepared to offer,” at a national level, although there are exceptions in a few dioceses.In Cuba, said representatives, there is no youth violence or youth migration. But an increasingly aging population, they said, is generating a “demographic crisis for the future.”In the last 15 years the Cuban government has lightened its policies regarding religious liberty, but there is little or no support to developing a missionary Church. Thus, people have no reference to offer spiritual or pastoral care to others.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0614/bishops/{/gallery}