February 16, 2007

Catholic lawmakers author immigrant-friendly legislation

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Heeding the call of Indiana’s Catholic bishops’ recently released pastoral letter, “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Meeting Christ in New Neighbors,” four Catholic lawmakers are taking the shepherds’ words to heart by authoring legislation to help immigrants—legislation “that goes beyond superficial slogans” to extend authentic Christianity to new neighbors.

Sen. John Broden (D-South Bend), Sen. Tom Wyss (R-Fort. Wayne), Sen. Joe Zakas (R-Granger) and Rep. Mike Murphy (R-Indianapolis) are authoring bills to protect immigrants against fraud and ease some aspects of their life in Indiana.

A change in culture, climate, language and government adds up to a daunting obstacle course for new immigrants to overcome. It is not surprising that immigrants often seek legal advice to help them navigate the American legal system to gain citizenship. However, a combined need of legal service to gain citizenship and a language barrier has opened the door for new immigrants to fall prey to a new kind of fraud—legal services fraud.

Senators Broden and Zakas, who are both practicing Catholics and attorneys, would like to put an end to this type of fraud through legislation they are


Senate Bill 445, the Broden-Zakas bill which was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 7, would punish a person who knowingly or intentionally implies they are an attorney using the word “notario.”

An individual who is a notary public can advertise in Spanish as a “notario publico,” which in Spanish refers to a highly trained attorney. Under the proposed bill, the penalty for such actions could be a maximum fine of $5,000 or up to one year in jail.

Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, who testified before the Senate Judiciary panel in support of the bill which would outlaw this practice, said, “These individuals charge large sums but give poor advice, often ending in harm to the immigrant and the family. Senate Bill 445 will provide consumer protection and prohibit this fraud.

“When a comprehensive immigration reform package is enacted on the federal level, legal assistance will be needed,” said Tebbe, who serves as spokesperson for Indiana’s Catholic bishops. “We must protect individuals from being taken advantage of by people who cannot help them.”

Congregation of Holy Cross Father Chris Cox, pastor of St. Adalbert and St. Casimir parishes in South Bend, Ind., in the Fort Wayne/South Bend Diocese, said, “Immigration law is very complicated. When people not properly trained by the Bureau of Immigration Affairs enter into immigration law, they may cause irreparable harm to families.

“Easily, families may be separated for 10 years,” he said. “Families from St. Adalbert have suffered because of this. At this time, Indiana statutes have no teeth. It is crucial that we offer protections to consumers.”

Benedictine Sister Karen Durliat of the Guadalupe Center in Huntingburg, Ind., a ministry in the Evansville Diocese which serves the area’s Hispanic community, said she is familiar with legal services fraud.

“It’s more common among immigrants when they first arrive,” she said.

Sister Karen knows of one situation where an immigrant couple was a victim of legal services fraud. They are now facing deportation because they submitted fraudulent papers.

Sister Karen said she is seeing an increase in depression and anxiety among the immigrant community. She said that the government really needs to “find a path for citizenship for those who have lived and worked here for some time now.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 445 due to a few technical amendments, which needed to be drafted. However, a vote by the Senate panel could be taken this week.

While gaining citizenship has been the most notable problem among immigrants, some who have temporary visas who are in the United States legally find getting a driver’s license equally difficult.

The Real ID Act of 2005, a federal law aimed at providing better national security, requires anyone obtaining a driver’s license to provide a Social Security number. However, immigrants who are in the United States legally with temporary visas for employment are not issued Social Security numbers, and therefore cannot be issued a driver’s license.

To remedy this problem, Sen. Wyss has co-authored a Senate Bill which would allow Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) to issue a one-year driver’s license to a legal immigrant who does not have a Social Security number. Before an Indiana driver’s license would be granted, the applicant would have to verify ineligibility for a Social Security number and verify the applicant’s lawful status in the United States.

Senate Bill 463 was scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 13 in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs, a panel which Sen. Wyss chairs. Sen. Wyss is a parishioner at St. Vincent Parish in Fort. Wayne, Ind., in the Fort Wayne/South Bend Diocese. Sen. Victor Heinrold

(R-Kouts) is a co-author of the bill.

Rep. Murphy has authored a similar bill, House Bill 1523. The measure allows Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) to issue a one-year driver’s license to immigrants with temporary visas. Rep. Murphy is a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis.

To view the Indiana bishops’ statement on welcoming immigrants, go to the Indiana Catholic Conference’s Web page at www.indianacc.org. Click on “Resources” and scroll down to “Immigration.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.) †

Local site Links: