Immigration raids on workplaces and their destructive fallout were the focus of a press conference sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sept 10. The bishops and other immigrant advocates have felt increasing concern at the rising number of raids since the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007, a reform that President Bush once favored. The conference also underscored the fact that the bishops have been trying to work with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to curtail the raids because of the humanitarian damage they cause. With immigration reform on hold, I.C.E. officials have come down hard on illegal workers—though not their employers. Last year, I.C.E. made 5,000 workplace arrests of illegal immigrants, 10 times the number in 2005. Among the biggest was a raid in Laurel, Miss., where 595 men and women were rounded up.
Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, who was not at the bishops’ press conference, said later that the arrested workers at Laurel left behind nearly 300 children under 5 years of age and 187 school-age children, all of whom would now need to be cared for by someone other than their parents. But, he asked, “who, exactly?” He went on to describe the children left fatherless and motherless as “collateral damage in the war for who can be ‘toughest’ on the immigration issue.” Indeed, what happens to children after raids, and especially after the deportation of one or both parents, is among the primary concerns of the bishops and immigrant advocates. At the press briefing, Bishop John C. Webster of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Migration, said that the raids do nothing to solve the problem of illegal migration and often are carried out “at the cost of family integrity and human dignity.”
Among the more shocking I.C.E. actions was the raid last July on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Federal agents took over 400 people into custody. More than 250 were charged with “aggravated identity theft” for using false Social Security numbers or false green cards. Most received five-month prison sentences. A federally certified translator on the scene, Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas, was dismayed by what he saw during the 10-day, herd-like procedures in Postville. Later the same month, in testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, he said that many of the defendants did not seem to understand the charges and “did not even know what a Social Security number is.” Since a number of those held were ethnic Mayans, “it was unclear to what extent they understood Spanish.” He described the scene at their arraignment as “one of the saddest processions I have ever witnessed.”
Among church leaders who have spoken most forcefully in defense of immigrant rights over the past few years is Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. When the House of Representatives was considering an especially punitive measure that would have criminalized people, including church workers, for providing basic assistance to undocumented persons, he said that he would be willing to go to jail, and instruct his priests to do the same, rather than deny humanitarian aid like food, clothing and shelter. This past July, in his keynote address at the National Migration Conference in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Mahony spoke of the “dark moment” in the nation’s history brought about by the failure of immigration reform. It was, he said, all the darker in that it “emboldened some of our elected officials to pursue a punitive approach, using enforcement as both an immigration policy and a political tool.”
Although the pope did not speak specifically of the U.S. immigration debate during his April visit, he did underscore the need to protect immigrant families. Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, a vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, took the occasion to make his mean-spirited remark that it was not in the pope’s “job description to engage in American politics.” At the time of the visit, Cardinal Mahony and other bishops expressed shock that on the same day that the pope and President Bush issued a joint statement underscoring the need for policies that treat immigrants humanely and protect their family life, federal agents were raiding chicken processing plants in five states.
Whoever becomes the next president will need to address the immigration issue in one way or another—we hope in a way that will make earned citizenship possible for the 12 million undocumented men and women now living in the shadows. The current enforcement-only policy is no way to mend our broken immigration system.