Catholic Bishops Urge U.S., Mexico to Develop Immigration Program

Times Staff Writer

Roman Catholic bishops from throughout the Mexican border area Thursday called on authorities in the United States and Mexico to work together and develop a "bilateral" program aimed at regulating immigration.

Noting that the two governments are in constant communication about Mexico's foreign debt, Tijuana Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlie asked: "If they can work something out at the economic level, why can't they do it at the human level?"

The bishops, in an 11-page letter released simultaneously Thursday in Tijuana and in a number of Mexican border cities, offered few concrete solutions to the thorny problem of immigration, but urged that officials from the two nations should meet to talk about it.

Significantly, the 11 prelates who signed the document engaged in no direct criticism of officials in either the United States or Mexico, and cast most of their comments in humanitarian terms.

"The daily drama on the border is painful," Bishop Berlie said at a news conference here. "We have to look for human solutions."

Some Kind of Agreement

Pressed at a news conference about the suggestion for bilateral talks, Bishop Berlie noted, for instance, that perhaps the two nations could work out some kind of agreement guaranteeing the orderly flow of legal Mexican labor to the United States.

Although experts on both sides of the border have long called for U.S.-Mexico talks on illegal immigration, U.S. authorities have shown little interest in becoming involved in such efforts.

Instead, U.S. officials have generally sought to control the problem through bolstered enforcement at home and stricter laws, such as the landmark immigration law passed in 1986.

In one pointed comment, the bishops noted what they viewed as an imbalance in U.S. immigration law: that would-be immigrants from Mexico receive no preferential treatment, despite the close geographic and cultural ties of the two nations.

But the bishops also praised U.S. lawmakers for offering amnesty to undocumented workers in the United States, and advised all those eligible to take advantage. "Seize the opportunity," Bishop Berlie said.

As for Mexico, the prelates warned that the nation was losing a major resource--its people--and called on Mexican officials to improve citizens' lives so that they would not be forced to leave.

In Mexico, officials often view immigration as an "escape valve" that helps avert social unrest among the poor--an impression that the bishops suggested was mistaken.

'An Illusion'

"It's an illusion to say that immigration helps (Mexico)," said Father Flor Maria Rigoni, who runs a Roman Catholic shelter for migrants here.

The bishops also urged would-be Mexican migrants to reflect on the dangers of migration and the prospective breakup of their families before leaving for El Norte. The bishops noted the "sadness, loneliness and anguish of mothers, wives and children" left behind.

However, diocesan officials acknowledged that poor people in the Mexican interior increasingly have few economic alternatives except to migrate to the north.

"Many people are coming to avoid hunger," noted Father Rigoni.

The pastoral letter, some eight months in preparation, was prompted by the bishops' desire to make some comment about immigration, Catholic officials said.

The letter is signed by the 11 bishops whose dioceses range from Tijuana on the Pacific Coast to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico.

Mostly, the bishops express their concerns humbly, always careful to underline their "respect" for the sovereignty of Mexico and the United States.

"With our reflections," the bishops state, "we want . . . to contribute in a positive, respectful and Christian manner . . . to the search for solutions."

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