A dozen California bishops Wednesday called for passage of immigration legislation to unite families by providing "a generous path to citizenship" but less focus on punishing those who arrived illegally.
"Immigration reform is the civil rights test of our generation," Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said as the church leaders appeared for an joint announcement following a conference of the bishops in Sacramento.
"It's not about politics for us. It's about people," Gomez said. "For me, it's a question of human rights and human dignity."
The bishops, representing the Catholic Church in a state that is home to 2.6 million undocumented immigrants, nearly one-fourth of America's total, broadly endorsed immigration legislation in the U.S. Senate.
But they criticized the current bill for offering a 13-year path to citizenship – instead of a faster process – for most undocumented immigrants and for imposing fines and other punitive measures.
"The Catholic Church in California, and everywhere in America, has always been a church of immigrants," said Archbishop Gomez in a news conference in which the bishops alternated between English and Spanish. "For us, these debates about immigration are about the future of the church."
The current immigration bill requires proof of a secure southern border – with 90 percent of illegal crossers turned back – before undocumented immigrants living in the United States can apply for a permanent resident card, the first step to citizenship.
The bill would provide $6.5 billion in additional funding to fortify the border. It would require that undocumented immigrants seeking permanent status pay fines and any unpaid taxes, learn English and pass criminal background checks.
"It seems to be a punitive tone – that somehow we need to punish these people," said Bishop Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento.
While Archbishop Gomez said the bishops supported immigration "reform so our brothers and sisters can live with the dignity that God intended for them," Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange County drew parallels to his family's Irish heritage.
"My ancestors were Irish immigrants and they brought with them the values of faith, family and hard work," he said, switching from English to Spanish. "Eso es el mismo que hoy – (that is) the same as today."
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