From being a country that once welcomed immigrants, the United States has become a nation that has raised higher and higher barriers against them. These higher walls of exclusion are having a destructive effect on would-be immigrants from around the world, but especially on the people of one of our nearest neighbors, Mexico.
This past January, the U.S. bishops, together with their brother bishops in Mexico, jointly released a pastoral statement called Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope. In the present anti-immigrant climate, however, the statement might more accurately be titled “Strangers Still,” because hopes for the implementation of its recommendations depend on political and economic changes that may be long in coming. But the goals the bishops present, based as they are on Gospel values and Catholic social teaching, must nonetheless be striven for.
One goal that seemed within reach before the terrorist attacks was the legalization of the estimated five million undocumented Mexicans who have been living and working in the United States for years. Many have U.S.-born citizen children and spouses, and they pay taxes. The attacks, however, and the consequent tightening of immigration restrictions, have put their legalization on indefinite hold, forcing them to continue facing possible deportation and long-term separation from their closest family members.
Over the past few years, the number of Border Patrol agents has tripled. Because of their presence—in conjunction with various blockade initiatives, under sanitized names like Operation Hold the Line (1993) in El Paso, Operation Gatekeeper (1994) in the San Diego area and Operation Safeguard (1995) in southern Arizona—migrants desperate to reach the United States for work or for family reunification have been driven into remote desert and mountain regions. Since 1998, several thousand have died from dehydration and other environmental causes. Those apprehended are often jailed for long periods.
Many jobs here have long been held by undocumented immigrants, especially in the service, agriculture and meatpacking sectors. In a sad commentary on the underlying hypocrisy of some of our polices, they “labor with the quiet acquiescence of both government and industry.” In other words, because U.S. business interests find cheap labor a necessity, local, state and federal officials frequently look the other way. But if undocumented immigrants complain about low pay or bad working conditions, unscrupulous employers know that they have only to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to have them deported.
The bishops’ statement includes principles that they believe should serve as the foundation of immigration policy. While acknowledging that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders, they argue that “when persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive.” Sovereign nations, it adds, “should find ways to accommodate this right.” The United States, though, is far from seeking ways to accommodate such a right.
In a section of the document on the root causes of migration, the bishops note that only an adjustment of the economic inequalities between the United States and Mexico can provide workers there with adequate opportunities to earn enough to support themselves and their families. As matters now stand, however, policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, while benefitting U.S. business, have done damage in Mexico, especially among small agricultural businesses.
Although it will be a long time before economic inequalities between the two countries can be reduced to something approaching fairness, certain steps could be taken now. The first is the need for a broad legalization program for undocumented Mexicans already in the United States, most of whom live in fear of exploitation and deportation, even though they contribute to the American economy. Also needed is reform of the U.S. family-based legal immigration categories. This would lessen the yearslong waiting periods that currently keep family members in the two nations separated. As the statement notes, these face a harshly unfair decision: “Either honor their moral commitment to family and migrate...without proper documentation, or wait in the system and face indefinite separation from loved ones.” The wait for a visa takes approximately eight years. Such a policy, the bishops rightly observe, actually promotes undocumented migration.
Finally, while acknowledging that various heightened security measures may well be needed in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the bishops point out that actions like reducing legal immigration between the two nations do not make us more secure. Instead, they negate our long history of welcoming the stranger.