By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The nation's 33 Hispanic Roman Catholic Bishops released on Monday a strongly worded "letter to immigrants" suggesting illegal immigrants deserve thanks from Americans, and calling for "denunciation of the forces which oppress them."
The bishops have come out in support of comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants before, as they do again in the letter, but it uses stronger language and goes further in offering support to undocumented immigrants.
The letter was released by San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the highest ranking Mexican-Americans in the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.
"We are well aware of the great sacrifice you make for your families' well being," portions of the letter say.
"Despite your contributions to the well-being of our country, instead of receiving our thanks, you are often treated as criminals because you have violated current immigration laws."
The letter is being released on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and the Continental Americas. On December 12 many immigrants to the United States from Latin America, who are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, return to churches to reconnect with their heritage.
Garcia-Siller and Gomez, the only Latino Archbishops in the U.S. church, are natives of Mexico and U.S. citizens.
"This letter is pastoral in nature and is not about politics or programs," Garcia-Siller said. "It is my desire to offer comfort, kindness, and compassion to all immigrants who are suffering, especially at this time of year."
But groups that fight illegal immigration said the Bishops are placing the interests of their U.S. parishioners second.
"The reason that we have immigration laws is because they are there to protect the interests of the American people," Ira Mehlman, communications director of the group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Monday.
"What the Bishops are saying, essentially, is that other people are going to have to sacrifice their jobs, their children's educational opportunities ... because the Catholic Church is placing the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those who are legitimately here in the United States."
"The Catholic Church has seen immigration as a recruiting tool," Mehlman said. "That is not a legitimate interest of American immigration policy."
Garcia-Siller said he "can't control what other people say."
'PAINED AND SADDENED'
"It pains and saddens me that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters have not supported our petitions for changes in the immigration law that will protect the basic rights of immigrants," he said.
The letter pledges to "continue to advocate on behalf of global economic justice, so our brothers and sisters can find employment opportunities in their countries of origin that offer a living wage, and allow them to live with dignity."
Garcia-Siller said he also wants to "assure immigrants of the solidarity and support of the Hispanic Bishops in the United States, and pledges to continue the advocacy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for 'just reform' of U.S. immigration policy."
He said the Bishops' demand is not for 'open borders' and he supports border security.
"Any new immigration law should include a program for worker visas that respects the immigrants' human rights, provides for their basic needs and ensures that they enter our country and work in a safe and orderly manner," he said, quoting from the letter.
But he vowed that the Bishops will "not wait until the law changes" to provide welcome and support for the undocumented in Catholic churches.
"In your suffering we see the face of Jesus Christ," he said to the immigrants.
Mehlman said the idea of the U.S. owing thanks to illegal immigrants was particularly offensive.
"It demonstrates that they simply don't understand the concept of what immigration law is all about," he said. "Ask the guy who used to do the job that is now being done by an illegal immigrant if they think the illegal immigrant needs to be thanked."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)