North American Catholic leaders said they would push for protection of migrants traveling through Mexico and for better treatment of Haitian migrants and their children living in the Dominican Republic.
Concluding two days of talks on migration on May 30, representatives of bishops' conferences from the U.S., Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean ended their fifth annual meeting on regional migration issues by pledging to work together on these issues.
"It's a global phenomenon that grows every day ... and it has pastoral implications," said Bishop Francisco Ozoria Acosta of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. "It's a complicated and delicate phenomenon, but it is of great important to the church."
Representatives of 10 countries said they were committed to advocating for migrants who travel, often in peril, to more prosperous countries in search of work.
"We have a tremendous problem with migrants passing through Mexico and being subjected to abuse," said Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Mexico.
Bishop Vera said the group would push the Mexican Senate to create a special transit visa that would offer protection for Central Americans migrating north to the United States.
Drug gangs often target migrants for extortion or worse, Bishop Vera said. A Catholic migrant safe house in Saltillo recently estimated hundreds of migrants have been killed in the area in the past 10 months.
An estimated 140,000 Central Americans enter Mexico's southern border every year intending to head north to the United States.
The special transit visa would give migrants temporary legal rights while they were in Mexico, Bishop Vera said.
In addition to advocating for the visa, the representatives said they would pressure governments to take measures to protect migrants and support organizations working in the region.
They called hardline immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama "the products of fear" that "lead to xenophobia."
The group chose the Dominican Republic to call attention to the plight of Haitian migrants and their children living in the country, said Johnny Young, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Of particular concern is the growing population of functionally stateless people here -- mostly children of Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic.
"It's a situation that's way out of line with the basic humanitarian principles," Young said.
Human rights groups estimate that thousands of people born in the country to Haitian parents have been left functionally stateless by strict citizenship laws adopted by the Dominican government in recent years. The key change required that parents be in the country legally for their child to receive birthright citizenship.
Those changes have had implications for the children of hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants who came to the Dominican Republic to work in sugar cane fields or on construction jobs and ended up setting down roots. The two nations share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Thousands of the children of migrants are becoming adults and finding the Dominican government no longer considers them citizens, denying them papers such as copies of their birth certificates, which are needed to do everything from marry to graduate from college.
"The Dominican Republic, although it was the first to respond to earthquake victims with great generosity, has a large number of Haitian migrants who suffer constant violations of their rights on account of illegal immigration, obstacles for legalization, deportation and inhuman working conditions," the representatives said in a May 30 statement.
"We are equally concerned with the obstacles the Dominican government has put in place for Dominicans of Haitian descent to acquire and renew documentation. This practice violates this population's right to ... get a decent job, marry ... open bank accounts, travel, etc.," the statement said.
The statement was the strongest signal to date that the Catholic Church would join with human rights organizations and migration groups to challenge the Dominican government.
A representative of the government's civil registry office, which oversees the citizenship process, said the office was not aware of any formal complaint from the church.
In the past, the office has said that it is not targeting the children of Haitian migrants, only applying the law and cleaning up and modernizing a formerly fraudulent civil registry system.