PROVIDENCE (AP) – Jesus wouldn’t round up illegal immigrants for deportation, and federal agents who follow his example and refuse to participate in such raids should be treated as conscientious objectors, Rhode Island’s Catholic bishop said Thursday.

Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Boston calling for U.S. officials to halt mass immigration raids in Rhode Island. He said agents who won’t take part shouldn’t be punished.

The letter was sent Tuesday and publicly released Thursday.

“We often ask, ‘What would Jesus do?”‘ Tobin said in an interview Thursday. “I know for sure what Jesus would not do, would be to sweep into a community, gather up large numbers of people, separate them from one another and deport them to another country. In my own mind, in my own conscience, that’s crystal clear: Jesus would not do that.”

Tobin’s letter comes during a heated debate over illegal immigration in heavily Catholic Rhode Island.

Authorities recently raided six courthouses looking for illegal immigrant maintenance workers and Gov. Don Carcieri, himself a Catholic, signed an order requiring state police and prison officials to identify illegal immigrants for possible deportation.

“We believe that raids on the immigrant community are unjust, unnecessary, and counterproductive,” Tobin’s letter says.

It also calls on individual federal agents to consider the morality of their actions and refuse to participate if their conscience dictates. In such cases, he said, “we urge the Federal Government to fully respect the well-founded principles of conscientious objection.”

ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the agency respects Tobin but believes his diocese “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.”

Carcieri questioned Tobin’s logic during an interview on WPRO-AM.

“If you choose to become a law enforcement officer, you swear to uphold the laws of the state and the nation,” Carcieri said. “That’s what you do. You don’t want to do that, then don’t become a law enforcement officer.”

Roman Catholic and other religious leaders have repeatedly criticized immigration raids that target migrant workers, rather than illegal immigrants who commit crimes. But Tobin’s request is unusual because it suggests the raids are forcing immigration agents to choose between their jobs and their religious faith.

The bishop said he has not been contacted by any ICE agents who feel morally conflicted about their work.

Roger Dupont, a Catholic in Tobin’s diocese, retired from ICE in 2006 after nearly two decades as special agent. He said he primarily targeted illegal immigrants who were committing other crimes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered (an agent) who said, ‘I don’t want to make that arrest,”‘ Dupont said. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s their job. They’re hired to do it.”

Tobin is bishop of the Diocese of Providence, which covers the entire state. He has political clout in Rhode Island, a state where some 60 percent of residents call themselves Roman Catholic, a higher percentage than any other state.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called U.S. immigration policies “morally unacceptable,” saying they keep families divided and encourage the exploitation of migrants. While the bishops’ conference has said the federal government has a right to launch raids, it believes they are often counterproductive, said Kevin Appleby, director of the conference’s Office of Migration and Refugee Policy.

He said Tobin’s letter is unique because it asks that ICE agents be excused from raids on religious or moral grounds.

“I think it’s an interesting idea because, from our reports, a lot of these raids have really impacted families and individuals and really terrorized communities,” Appleby said. “It should be logical that some agents think that tactic is too harsh and might not want to participate.”

Tobin said he decided to write the letter after hearing about the plight of suspected illegal immigrants arrested during raids in June and July.

The July raid on the Rhode Island courthouses occurred as Tobin was attending the first meeting of a panel charged with monitoring the implementation of Carcieri’s executive cracking down on illegal immigrants.

As the illegal immigrants were being arrested, the state police superintendent assured Tobin and other clergy that his officers would not launch immigration raids.

State police later said they were just assisting in a federal investigation. Carcieri called the timing of the raid accidental.

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AP-ES-08-21-08 1945EDT

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