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TORONTO - When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney walks into a room full of bishops in St. Adéle, Que., Catholic refugee agencies are hoping the minister gets an earful.

Five Catholic immigration and refugee organizations in Toronto have written to the bishops asking that they challenge the minister on changes to Canada’s refugee and immigration laws. Kenney will address the bishops between Sept. 24 and 28 in a private, off-the-record session at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual plenary meeting.

Romero House, Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, FCJ Refugee Centre, The Mustard Seed and Becoming Neighbours want the bishops to ask Kenney:
o Why Canada is treating refugees from some countries differently than refugees from other countries?
o Whether it’s fair to rush certain cases through the system before refugees hire a lawyer and prepare a thorough case?
o Why the government is limiting basic health care for refugees?
o Why do so many of Canada’s 200,000 foreign workers have no stable pathway to permanent resident status?
o Why are refugees smuggled into Canada as a group blocked for five years from re-uniting with their families even if they are found to be legitimate refugees?

The CCCB won’t say whether these questions will be asked, but it has the potential to re-open an old feud between the bishops and Kenney. In November 2010 the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission wrote to Kenney to complain of sections of “The Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Maritime Transportation Security Act.”

“Many of the clauses of this legislation may contravene international law and Canadian law, and penalize refugees more than the smugglers,” said the CCCB letter, adding that his anti-smuggling bill “risks creating serious obstacles to sponsorship and family reunification.”

Kenney did not welcome the bishops’ criticism, telling Canadian Catholic News Ottawa correspondent Deborah Gyapong the letter reflected a “long tradition of ideological bureaucrats who work for the bishops’ conference producing political letters signed by pastors who may not have specialized knowledge in certain areas of policy.”

Romero House director Sarah Villiger hopes this approach to Kenney through the bishops will draw a warmer response.

“We knew that (Kenney) would be there, personally invited. I think that in itself is a bit of a different tone, as opposed to just writing him a letter,” she said.

In part, the refugee agencies wanted to remind the bishops of their own stand on refugee and immigration issues. The letter quotes the bishops own 2006 pastoral letter “We Are Aliens and Transients Before the Lord, Our God.”

“Openness should be shown to persons of all cultures and origins, no matter their immigration status. Christians are to be among those who refuse to let injustice toward migrants continue, let alone increase,” the bishops wrote.

“We thought it was important that they get the input of people who work on the ground with refugees,” said Villiger.

The organizations also took the opportunity to remind the bishops of the many refugees and immigrants who actually occupy pews on Sunday morning.

“The Canadian Catholic Church has historically been an immigrant Church, and today many of the Catholic faithful are immigrants and refugees who form a vital part of and make a significant contribution to the Church in Canada,” they wrote.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA