Updated: Thursday, 09 Oct 2008, 10:21 PM EDT
Published : Thursday, 21 Aug 2008, 9:35 AM EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A bishop in the nation's most heavily Roman Catholic state is urging federal immigration agents to consider their morality before carrying out immigration raids.
Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin made the request in a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Boston, which was then released Thursday to Eyewitness News.
The bishop also called on ICE to stop arresting illegal immigrants in mass sweeps in Rhode Island and to allow agents to abstain from federal raids as conscientious objectors if they feel the raids violate Christian teachings.
"If their discernment leads them to the conclusion that they cannot participate in such raids in good conscience, we urge them not to do so," the letter states. "If ICE agents refuse to participate in immigration raids in conformity with their faith and conscience, we urge the federal government to fully respect the well-founded principles of conscientious objection."
Tobin carries political clout in Rhode Island, where 60 percent of residents call themselves Roman Catholic. The letter is also signed by 15 priests.
Tobin's letter comes during a heated debate over illegal immigration in Rhode Island, where authorities recently raided six Rhode Island courthouses and arrested 31 people, mainly Hispanic immigrants who are overwhelmingly Catholic. In a separate raid, ICE agents apprehended 42 suspected illegal immigrants in Newport and Middletown.
In a statement to Eyewitness News, ICE Press Secretary Kelly Nantel said, "While we have great respect for Bishop Tobin and his colleagues, we believe their congregations and communities would be better served by helping individuals to comply with the law or working to change those laws rather than asking law enforcement agents not to enforce it."
Roman Catholic and other faith leaders have repeatedly criticized immigration raids that target migrant workers as opposed to illegal immigrants who are violent or commit crimes. Tobin's request is unusual because it suggests the raids are forcing immigration agents to choose between their jobs and their religious faith.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called U.S. immigration policies "morally unacceptable" because they keep families divided, encourage the exploitation of migrants and enable abuse by human traffickers. During an April visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI said the U.S. needs a coordinated immigration policy that is humane and provides for the well-being of families.
The immigration debate erupted in this small state in March when Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Catholic, signed an executive order instructing state police and immigration officials to identify illegal immigrants for possible deportation.
The order also requires executive branch agencies and companies doing business with the state to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires.
Tobin has questioned whether the order was necessary and now sits on an advisory panel that Carcieri formed to monitor the order's implementation.