The National Catholic Review

Two opposing tides are at work in the world of immigration in the United States. On the one hand, the harsh provisions of the 1996 immigration lawthe Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Acthave made the lives of both documented and undocumented immigrants more difficult. On the other hand, the burgeoning economy has created an ever-rising demand for their presence in the job market.

Now, as the new millennium gets under way, a sea change is occurring. In a striking reversal of its former anti-immigrant stance ("They take jobs from Americans and drive down wages"), the A.F.L.-C.I.O. announced in February that it would seek amnesty for the approximately 6 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Ironically, it was the labor unions themselves that pressed Congress in the mid-1980’s to enact sanctions against employers who hired immigrants who lacked authorization to be here. In its February statement, however, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s executive council proposed not only amnesty, but also an end to employer sanctions. It also called for legislation that would protect immigrant workers from exploitative business practicesa serious problem in the low-paying service sector.

The A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s initiative, though, is not entirely altruistic. Donald Kerwin, chief operating officer of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., noted in an interview not long after the announcement that union membership across the country has fallen from 39 percent in the 1950’s to its present low of 14 percent. "Labor knows that it’s in its own interest to get immigrant workers documented and unionized," he said, "if the labor movement is going to come back." Still, he added, humanitarian reasons are also present, a desire to give immigrant union members leverage that would protect them from the sorts of exploitation that have become increasingly common.

As an example of the latter, Mr. Kerwin went on to speak of immigrants’ difficulties he observed first-hand during a trip to the Delmarva Peninsulaan area of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia that is the heart of the East Coast poultry processing industry. "At one place," he said, "workers have to pay $300 a month to live three to a room in what was once a hotel on Route 13 in Maryland, plus $80 for transportation to and from the plant. They get only $7.50 to $8.00 an hour: Do your math and you realize that these people are powerless"that is, in terms of their vulnerability to exploitation.

In a case that attracted national attention last fall, a group of immigrant workers at the Holiday Express Inn in Minneapolis voted to join Local 17 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union as a means of pressing for better working conditions. In what immigrant advocates have viewed as a retaliatory measure, the manager called the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ask that the workers’ status be checked. An I.N.S. raid on Oct. 13 resulted in the arrest of eight Mexicanssix women who worked as maids and two men. The local union arranged for their release from custody, but all now face deportation. In a column in the local diocesan newspaper, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis commented on the occurrence: "Were the basic human rights of these workers violated? ...It is increasingly becoming clear that outsiders have no place in our society"a view, he emphasized, that the church firmly rejects.

That the church has always been on the side of the immigrant in need of protection is a theme addressed more than once by the pope. So it is not surprising that the church in the United States has come out in support of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s February proposal. Just two months later, in fact, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeleschairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Domestic Policy Committeeand Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Camdenchairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migrationjoined John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., in issuing a joint statement at the U.S.C.C.’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 15. The statement begins: "As leaders of the United States Catholic Conference and President of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., we are committed to work together to fundamentally reform U.S. immigration policy in order to assure protection of fundamental rights of and greater respect for immigrant workers in our nation." It then goes on to outline the proposals made in the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s February announcement.

The plan to "fundamentally reform U.S. immigration policy" will produce new pressures on Congress to modify the more punitive provisions of 1996 law involving deportation, detention and prohibitions against re-entry. With election year politics gaining steam, however, and given Congressional resistance to anything so broad as a comprehensive amnesty, little is expected to happen this year. But significant beginnings have been made in the way of follow-up to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s February initiative. Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice president of the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., spoke in another interview of a series of forums she is overseeing around the country. Two were held in New York City and Atlanta in April, and two in Chicago and Los Angeles in June. Ms. Chavez-Thompson described them as "disturbing because we hear the stories of what happens to new immigrants in this country."

At the Atlanta forum, for example, a carpenter named Armando Torres told how he and his co-workers, most of whom were Hispanic immigrants, were forced to work overtime without pay at their construction sitesometimes working up to 60 hours a week for only $150. When they tried to form a union, the employerin a manner similar to what happened at the Holiday Express Inn in Minneapolisthreatened that the I.N.S. would pay a visit on the day of the election. A report based on the forums and related panel discussions will be presented to the executive council of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in August in the form of a briefing paper that will include a plan of action.

Whatever the hopes for this "plan of action," in the meantime various aspects of the 1996 law continue to wreak havoc in the lives of immigrant families who may have one or more citizen members. The harm has been particularly severe in regard to family reunificationa theme that was the subject of a conference on April 11 at The Catholic University of America called "American Families in Peril: The Impact of Our Immigration Laws on Immigrants and Families."

In his keynote address, Bishop DiMarzio echoed Pope John Paul II’s Migration Day statement, saying that "current U.S. immigration law and policy has created obstacles’ to migrant and refugee families remaining together." Among these obstacles, he said, is a provision that punishes undocumented family members who enter the country illegally to join those who are already here as legal permanent residents or citizens. The undocumented members who remain over six months can be barred from re-entry for three years once they return to their native countries to apply for permanent residence at their consulates; others who remain longer than a year are barred for 10 years. As Bishop DiMarzio put it, when faced with the prospect of long-term separation from their families already in the country, "many immigrants face the difficult choice of remaining separated indefinitely from their spouse or living in violation of the law." In most cases, he added, "they choose the latter and suffer unjust and disproportionate consequences." He called the choice Solomonica biblical allusion to the choice offered by King Solomon to the two mothers disputing the ownership of a baby each claimed to be her own. Having to face such a choice, he concluded, is morally wrong.

Much of the anguish in such situations stems from the increasingly mixed-status character of many American families. A 1999 study by the Urban Institute entitled "All Under One Roof" notes that in almost one out of every 10 families in the United States, one or more parents is a non-citizen, while one child or more is a citizen, having been born here. In areas of the country that have experienced a heavy influx of immigrants, the number of mixed families is much higher. Thus in Los Angeles nearly three-fifths of all children in low-income families fall into this mixed-status category; in New York the proportion is about one-third.

Welfare reform enters the immigration picture too, in terms of what the study calls its negative impact in creating two classes of citizens. One class "lives in households with noncitizens and suffers the disadvantage of losing benefits and the reduced overall household resources that may result." In contrast, the other classmade up of citizen children who live in households with other citizenssuffers from no comparable disadvantage. Among the most important of the benefits are food stamps. While children born here are entitled to them, noncitizen parents are not. But all those under one roof eat at the same table, so to speak, and therefore mixed family households as a whole receive fewer stamps and "presumably have less to eat," as the report put it. Adding to the decline in this and other benefits, like Medicaid, is the fear on the part of noncitizen parents that to apply on behalf of their American-born children might put at risk their own hoped-for adjustment to legal statusor put them in danger of deportation.

The possibility of deportationand with it, further and possibly permanent damage to family unificationhas loomed larger since the immigration law took effect in 1997. One especially damaging provision concerns an expanded list of removable offenses that are also retroactive in their application. This expansion affects not only undocumented immigrants but legal permanent residents as well. Offenses that lead to deportation can be relatively minor, like shoplifting, and they may have been committed decades before. In an article he wrote for Interpreter Releases, an immigration journal, Mr. Kerwin describes a case in which an immigration judge in the state of Georgia ordered the deportation of a Nigerian woman who was in the United States legally and who had borne two children here. Her crime? Stealing baby clothes valued at $14.99 six years before. At the time, she had received a one-year suspended sentence; but the retroactive nature of the law, together with the expansion of deportable offenses, led the judge to issue his 1999 deportation order.

In other cases, immigrants here legally for decades have been ordered deported back to countries they no longer regard as their own. Carol Wolchok, director of immigration law and representation at the American Bar Association, spoke at the conference about a woman named Cathy who had been brought to the United States as a child of three. As an adult, she was convicted in the early 1980’s of selling prescription drugs to an undercover agent who had posed as a boyfriend. At the time, she received probation. But now, because of the retroactive effect of the new legislation, her offense is considered an aggravated felony and she faces deportationdespite the fact that she has a child who is a citizen and has herself been a legal permanent resident for almost 40 years. The new immigration law, Ms. Wolchok noted, asserts that what a person did in the past can lead to automatic deportationdespite the fact that the court’s sentence may already have been served years before. Prior to the 1996 law, an immigration judge could provide discretionary relief from removal, but that avenue has become extremely restricted.

In addition to the devastating effects of the expanded list of deportable offenses and their retroactive nature, another roadblock to family reunification concerns the income requirement that is also part of the new law. In order for an immigrant living abroad to join a legal permanent resident here, the latter must file a petition with the I.N.S. and sign an affidavit of support by which the resident agrees to provide financially for the incoming family member. To do so, however, proof must be provided that the petitioner earns at least 125 percent of the amount specified by the federal government as the poverty line. For some who receive low salaries, though, fulfilling such a requirement can be impossible. According to the National Immigration Forum, approximately 28 percent of all American familiesimmigrants and non-immigrantshad incomes below 125 percent of the poverty level. Previously, the requirement was only 100 percent of the poverty line.

Even families not burdened by economic restrictions of this kind face considerable periods of waiting for an incoming member because of backlogs in the various visa categories for certain countries. And after approval has been granted, a family member from Mexico, say, seeking to join the rest of the family that is here legally, may still have to wait four or five years. No wonder, as Bishop DiMarzio said, some feel driven to break the law by making unauthorized re-entries for the sake of being with their loved ones. And yet, as he also insisted, "Family reunification must remain the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy." As of now, however, the 1996 law has moved many immigrants in the opposite direction, away from the possibility of family reunification. But at least the initiative taken by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the U.S. Catholic Conferenceto press for amnesty and an end to employer sanctionsserves as a positive step toward the goal of family unity that would also help to ensure the rights of immigrants. In his address on World Immigration Day in 1996, Pope John Paul II said that the immigrant’s "irregular status" must not lead to the loss of his dignity, "since he is endowed with inalienable rights which can neither be violated nor ignored." At this point in the history of the United States, unfortunately, these rights are being both ignored and violated in ways that impose destructive stress on the lives of families already legally herea stress that also burdens the lives of relatives seeking to join them from other countries.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.