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Arizona bishop calls for immigration reform to include family reunification

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WASHINGTON – The Episcopal bishop for Arizona joined several religious and union leaders Wednesday urging that family-unification policies be included in any comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Bishop Kirk Smith said that the family is the “chief social unit in society” and protecting and keeping immigrant families together should be paramount as federal lawmakers consider reform.

“This is one thing that we do all agree on, and that is support of the family, because we consider that to be an imperative that’s given to us by our religion and by our God,” Smith said on a conference call with the other officials.

It came as federal lawmakers continue to work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that is expected to include calls for border security as well as a possible route to citizenship for those immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Members of the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight – which includes Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake – have said they should have a bill ready next week.

The group of church and labor leaders – which included the head of the AFL-CIO – expressed concern that the bill could reduce the number of family visas, separating families instead of bringing them together.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he had heard that the reform bill might cut family visas to make room for more high-tech visas.

While high-tech workers are important to the economy, so are families, he said.

“Immigrant families contribute to the economy, they start their own businesses, they help in different areas of the economy that aren’t necessarily in the high-tech sector … but it helps all of our communities across the country,” Appleby said.

Smith also said it makes sense from an economic standpoint to have immigrants bring their families to this country. He noted that many immigrants send money back home to support families, but if the families were here, the money would be spent in the U.S. instead of in other countries.

Appleby said lengthy waits and a massive backlog are keeping families in different counties, a result of a broken family immigration system.

A University of Arizona report released last week concluded that a major reason that people who have been deported illegally cross the border again is to return to their families.

In interviews with more than 1,100 deported immigrants, the university researchers found that nearly a quarter had children in the United States who are citizens, and more than a third see the U.S. as their home.

“The Catholic bishops strongly believe that family unity should be the cornerstone of this system,” Appleby said. “We need to be mindful of the fact that family unity strengthens our social backbone.”

On the conference call, Smith used the example of a parishioner who had lived in the United States illegally for 20 years, raised a family and sent his kids to college before being picked up for a traffic violation. He now faces deportation.

Smith said he recently spoke with Flake about family reunification. Neither Flake nor McCain’s offices responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

“In all of our religious traditions the family is seen as the chief social unit in society and needs to be protected and needs to be upheld,” Smith said.