The Catholic Church’s vision for immigration reform

The National Week of Migration is January 7-13, 2007

By Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, OMI
Diocese of San Angelo

   All of us, in reference to our final eternal goal, are migrants.  The Church is a migrant Church.  It always has been and always will be, as we are pilgrims on a journey.  St. Paul wrote, “Here we have no lasting city but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb. 13:14).
   I invite all the people of our Diocese to remember in prayer and study the 26th observance of the National Migration Week that is celebrated from January 7-13, 2007. The theme for this year is “Receiving Christ in the Immigrant” which is both an invitation and a challenge to provide a welcome, hospitality and assistance to those who are migrants, immigrants, refugees and victims of human traffic and other people who come to our country looking for peace and justice.
   The Catholic Church has a vision for immigrant reform, and the Church wants immigrants, including the undocumented, to become full members of our society.  In the Church’s vision, all immigrants are to assume all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and to be permitted to contribute fully to the common good. 
   In the Church’s vision, immigrants are to be afforded legal status and other indications of membership in our nation so as to further the good of us all.  Extending labor and workplace protection laws to immigrants prevent employers from exploiting them and depressing wages and standards for al workers.  Educating immigrant children trains them to contribute to our country.
   To better understand the vision of the Catholic Church for immigrants, I share with you information from an article by Bishop Jamie Soto, as regards the objections to immigrant reform which shows they are largely built on the mistaken assumptions and false premises. 
   Myth #1: “Legalization would be deeply unfair to those who have played by the rules and waited patiently in line.  We shouldn’t reward lawbreakers?”
   The Senate’s legalization proposal requires immigrants to “earn” the right to be here after everybody in “line’ has received their green cards.  But who are these “others” in line?  A large proportion of them are the undocumented themselves.  They are not jumping ahead in line, they are in line. For example, many of the undocumented have been approved for visas.  They have understandably opted to remain in the United States with their families—rather than return to their countries of birth—as they await for their visas.  The system has made lawbreakers of these otherwise law-abiding people.  
   Myth 2: “We need an immigration system that honors ‘the rule of law’.”
   Actually, this is not so much a myth as it is a legitimate goal; we do need such a system.  However, we will never get such a system by “enforcement only” legislation.  We need to expand the avenues for legal status and admission.  The “rule of law” is not just about “law and order,” or the full enforcement of laws on books, or the creation of more laws that cannot be enforced.  According to a recent Brookings Institute paper, a system that honored the “rule of law” would feature prospective, coherent laws that are stable and sensible enough to be followed.  They should produce predictable outcomes, and be administered consistently.  We need to control our borders, but we also need an immigration system that meets these criteria.
   Myth 3: “Immigration reform threatens our nation’s security.”
   Terrorists have exploited our system of legal immigration.  However, an earned legalization program would make us more secure.  Instead of policing millions of peaceful immigrants without documentation, governmental agencies could target those who do not pass through the legal filter of a broad immigration system.  Here is how one security expert, Stephen Flynn, puts it: “If we legalize those who are here and are coming for valid purposes, we can concentrate law enforcement resources on the few bad actors.  As it stands, it is not the rule-breakers who create the security risk: instead it is unenforceable laws.  Our current system creates larger shadows for would-be terrorist to hide in.  We need to ‘drain the swamp from the fish’.”
   Myth 4: “We need to control the borders first; only then can we liberalize our standards for legal status and admission.”
   Our experience teaches us the “enforcement only” will not work.  We know this because we have tried it and it has been accompanied by a large increase in the undocumented population.  We need a comprehensive solution.  It would be more accurate to say that, if we liberalize our standards for admission, then we will have a chance at controlling our borders.
   Myth 5: “Immigrants take the jobs of Americans.”
   Unemployment is extremely low.  There are abundant job openings in the industries that many immigrants work in: chicken processing plants, meatpacking factories, garment sweatshops, agricultural labor, restaurants and hotels, to name a few.  The role of immigrants in the current economy reminds me of a quote by an anonymous immigrant displayed at Ellis Island museum: “We heard that in the United States the roads were paved with gold.  When we came, we found that they weren’t paved with gold.  They weren’t paved at all.  In fact we were supposed to pave them.”
   And finally, it is not really a myth, but we hear this simplistic talking point too often.  “What don’t you understand about the word “illegal” in illegal alien?”
   This is not the perceptive critic that it is meant to be.  It ignores the totality of an immigrant’s life, her character, hard work, commitment to family and reasons for coming.  It treats millions of hardworking families as criminals.  As catchy as may be, if offers no solution.  The criminal prosecution and deportation of 12 million people is not feasible, would destroy millions of families, bankrupt our economy and create a civil-rights debacle.
   We need “positive” and comprehensive immigration reform.  It offers the only sound policy solutions to the current problems.
   Immigrants want to be treated as full members of U.S. society.  They want to embrace US political and civic values without forfeiting their cultural identities.  They can contribute to our nation through their labor, industry, values, families and faith.


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