In a rare joint statement, U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops on Friday called on President Bush to resume negotiations to reach a sweeping migration agreement with Mexico.
The religious leaders, who represent about 150 million churchgoers in both countries, also urged American Catholics to welcome undocumented immigrants in their parishes and to lobby Congress and the White House to grant them amnesty.
The migration talks held out the prospect of a grand bargain to address the complex human and legal issues raised by generations of undocumented migrants from Mexico. But the talks were sidetracked after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"This country lives from the sweat of the undocumented, and we should provide them remedies that allow them to become part of this country," Thomas G. Wenski, auxiliary bishop of Miami, said in Spanish during a bilingual news conference here.
The 50-page statement, delivered to the White House this week, marked the first time prelates from the United States and Mexico have issued a joint pastoral letter.
Before Sept. 11, Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico were exploring an accord that would have encompassed some form of amnesty, temporary-worker program and stricter border enforcement on the Mexican side. There is widespread speculation that Bush may offer new, albeit more modest, proposals before his 2004 reelection campaign.
Failure to win a migration agreement with the United States has been a source of bitterness for the Mexican government, and was widely seen as one of the principal reasons for the recent resignation of Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda.
Opponents of legalization say its political prospects are virtually nonexistent.
"Elements of the administration want an illegal-alien amnesty, but Congress won't go for that," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbs on immigration. A joint statement with Mexican bishops "is less likely to sway American Catholics," Krikorian added. "It's likely to be seen as a special pleading for a foreign government."
The bishops' proposal is titled "Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope." Wenski said the U.S. bishops asked for a meeting with Bush to explain their ideas.
"He does have a Catholic brother and a Mexican-born sister-in-law and I hope that should help," Wenski said. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism, and his wife, Columba, was born in Mexico. The president is a Methodist.
The White House offered no indication of how the administration would respond to the religious leaders' request for a meeting with Bush. "The president remains committed to working with Mexico toward our shared goal of orderly, humane and legal migration," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Groups representing other nationalities are closely watching Bush's actions on Mexico, since undocumented immigrants from other countries are also expected to benefit from any legalization.
"We believe that at least a quarter of the undocumented are from Asian countries," said Karen Narasaki of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. "For legalization to be fair, everyone who is similarly situated must be able to apply."
The Catholic bishops' plan calls for a broad legalization program for undocumented immigrants of any nationality with long-term ties to the United States. Estimates of the number of undocumented immigrants range from more than 5 million to around 11 million, and roughly half are thought to come from Mexico.
The bishops also called for a new temporary-worker program that would include employee protections such as the ability of migrants to travel back and forth to their homelands.
If Bush does offer a plan, such a program is expected to be its central focus. Business groups have been lobbying for a broad temporary-worker program that would allow businesses including hotels, construction firms and other industries to fill their demand for workers.
However, the bishops said any temporary program would have to include a mechanism for workers to become legal permanent residents and, ultimately, U.S. citizens.
The bishops also urged expansion of existing immigration programs to foster family reunification. Legal residents of the United States now face years of waiting to bring in close relatives. The bishops said the period should be shortened for Mexican immigrants. U.S. bishops also support a similar benefit for immigrants from the Philippines.
Finally, the prelates urged "humane" border enforcement policies in both countries so that illegal migrants looking for work out of economic need are not "treated like criminals."
"This is the beginning of active advocacy on our side," Wenski said.
Beyond policymakers and governmental institutions, the pastoral letter was addressed to Catholics individually and in their parishes. Quoting verses from the Bible, the bishops suggested that the church should welcome those the government would turn away.
"We are trying to communicate to Catholics in the pews to overcome any xenophobia that they may have," Wenski said. "We are saying that's not very Christian."
The Catholic Church has recognized Latino immigrants as a source of millions of potential new members.
"The church has grown tremendously because of the influx of Hispanic Catholics," Wenski said. At one time, Latinos were concentrated in California and a handful of other states, but now "it is hard to find one diocese that doesn't have Hispanics within it," he added.
Mexican officials have argued that a migration agreement would improve U.S. security, because millions of people now living in a legal netherworld would come forward to identify themselves.
But critics of the idea say the legalization process could itself become a vehicle for terrorists or sympathizers to gain legal entry to the United States.
"There are good reasons that negotiations over an illegal alien amnesty have stalled," said Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies. "There are serious security questions about managing such a process in the post-Sept. 11 world."
After a meeting with Mexican diplomats late last year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the political climate in the United States makes it difficult to press the legalization issue.