"Our immigration system is broken and...in need of reform.” So said Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration in a statement in early January—soon after President Bush issued his proposal on Jan. 7 about this controversial issue. As many as 10 million undocumented people now live in the United States. A majority come from Mexico and Central and South America. Many are part of the workforce, especially in the agricultural, meat and poultry and service industries. By issuing his proposal, the president acknowledged the need to take steps to regularize their status. Such a step seemed within reach prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which resulted in a further tightening of barriers to immigration—barriers that have made the lives of undocumented persons still more precarious.
Increased surveillance at the U.S. southern border, for example, has led indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of people, who have tried to evade the border patrol by crossing through dangerous desert and mountain areas, where they have perished from heat or cold. Nonetheless, the number of undocumented persons entering the United States each year has been increasing. The Immigration Policy Institute estimates that there may be as many as 500,000. Many are apprehended by federal agents (and now by local and state police officers too) and locked away in detention facilities to await deportation.
President Bush’s proposal amounts to hardly more than a sketch. But it has raised frail hopes again that undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for years, paying taxes and raising children, might now begin to look toward legal permanent residency as a real possibility. The plan, though, is essentially a guest worker program, and herein lies the problem. These immigrants would be no more than “guests,” with no guarantees of future citizenship, nor would there be any provision for amnesty for their illegal status. The plan would offer a three-year work permit, with the possibility of an extension. At the end of six years, the guest workers would be obliged to return to their home country or revert to illegal status, unless Congress extended their stay. The permits would be aimed primarily at the kinds of manual-labor-intensive jobs that American workers are reluctant to take—jobs in poultry and meat processing plants, vineyards and orchards, and in restaurants and hotels.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, told America that the main problem with the proposal is that it does not lead to permanent residency, either for those already here or those coming from abroad to fill jobs for which workers cannot be found among American citizens. “They would be here with their families,” he said, “building up equities, and yet after the six years they would be facing deportation”—back to the poverty-ridden home situations from which they had hoped to escape. Because of their tenuous status, moreover, the guest workers would be exposed to abuses in the workplace. Nor are there strong provisions for fair salaries. He noted that in his own visits to migrant shelter centers, he had found many instances of immigrants being paid less than the minimum wage.
A further worry of advocates concerns the fate of two worthwhile bills now in Congress—the so-called AgJobs Act, which would pave the way for qualified agricultural workers to gain permanent residency, and the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrant students to receive financial help to complete their studies and also offer hope for eventual citizenship (see America, 12/8/03, editorial).
Because the Bush proposal has clouded the prospects of passage for these two bills, advocates are intensifying their efforts to enact them into law. They find little to commend in the president’s proposal, which—unlike the two bills—promises no road to legalization for the many undocumented immigrants already here or for others outside U.S. borders who, in their desperation, might risk seeking a three-year work permit.
As Bishop Wenski puts it, “What is needed...is truly comprehensive immigration reform that will provide opportunities for legalization for the undocumented currently living in the United States [and] temporary worker programs with full worker protections and a path to permanency.” The president’s proposal lacks this kind of comprehensive reform, but in the current nativist atmosphere in our country, it may be the best that can be hoped for.