WASHINGTON -- Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., and 15 Catholic pastors have called on a federal immigration official to stop massive immigration raids in Rhode Island for the time being and to allow agents who disagree with such raids on moral grounds to step aside as conscientious objectors.
In an Aug. 19 letter to Stephen Farquharson, interim director of the Boston office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the group urged that the moratorium stay in place until the country implements "a comprehensive and just reform of our immigration laws."
"We need a timeout," Bishop Tobin told Catholic News Service Aug. 21. "We need a cooling-off phase. We need a moratorium until we can get this broken system repaired.
"People ask 'What would Jesus do?' I know for sure what Jesus would not do. Jesus would not sweep into a community, gather up a large number of people, disrupt families and create anxiety. In my own mind, I know Jesus would not do that," he said.
ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said agents have taken an oath to uphold the law.
"We will continue to enforce the law and I would stress we do that in a very professional way with an acute awareness of the impact that enforcement has on the individuals we encounter," she told CNS in a phone interview.
While expressing respect for Bishop Tobin and the priests, Nantel suggested that their letter was inappropriate.
"We believe he and his colleagues would better serve the community to encourage individuals to comply with the law or work to change those laws rather than asking a law enforcement agent not to enforce the law," she said.
The bishop said he was motivated to act after hearing numerous concerns from pastors at parishes serving large immigrant populations. He said the communities are burdened with fear and anxiety in the wake of a series of summer raids that resulted in the arrest of dozens of undocumented immigrants.
Bishop Tobin met with the pastors Aug. 19 and after discussing the issue he presented a letter for them to review. He invited them to sign the letter, but said he would send it on his own if no one joined him. All the pastors at the meeting added their signatures to the letter, he said.
The letter also calls for immigration agents to assess their role in the raids "in the context of their faith and sanctity of their conscience."
"For the agents, at least ask the question," Bishop Tobin explained in a telephone interview. "And if they find this to be in conflict with their conscience (we are asking) that they would be respected as conscientious objectors. It's possible if the agents understand the consequences of these raids they would say, 'I don't want to be part of it.'
"I just hope we don't lose sight of the more important divine law, the moral law," he added.
A debate over illegal immigration in heavily Catholic Rhode Island has been raging since Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Catholic, signed an executive order in March calling for state police and immigration officials to work together in identifying illegal immigrants for possible deportation.
Soon afterward, Bishop Tobin joined other religious leaders in questioning Carcieri's action. He and the other religious leaders have since been part of a state panel monitoring implementation of the order.
The order was followed weeks later by unrelated immigration raids led by federal authorities. During a sweep in the towns of Newport and Middletown June 11-12, ICE agents and state and local police entered restaurants, stores and apartments, arresting 42 people from Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico. On July 15 authorities raided six Rhode Island courthouses and arrested dozens of workers employed by two contractors hired by the state.
The letter from Bishop Tobin and the priests said the recent "police action" of ICE agents has divided the community, instilled fear among immigrants, disrupted people's lives and separated family members who are innocent of any crime.
"As religious leaders we understand and support the need to apprehend and arrest individuals who are responsible for felonies and other serious crimes," the letter stated. "The enforcement of just laws is necessary for public safety and the common good. But the arrest of serious criminals is not what we have observed in the arrest and detention of immigrants that has recently taken place in our state.
"The confusing and secretive detention of those arrested has further complicated the situation," it added. "As religious leaders concerned for our people we would be negligent in our pastoral duties if we didn't speak out against these unjust government policies and practices."