Immigration issues continue to roil the waters of Congress, with the president himself caught in their turbulence. Mr. Bush traveled to the Southwest in November to promote again his plan for a guest worker program. This time, however, his reform proposal contains some harsh elements intended to soothe anti-immigrant activists. There would be, for example, an expansion of the expedited removal process by which Border Patrol agents would have authority to order deportations. Such a procedure would be especially harmful to asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution.
But House Republicans reject any form of guest worker program, alleging that it would amount to amnesty for lawbreakers. The bill introduced by the House Judiciary Committee chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Republican of Wisconsin), is draconian. The Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, passed by the House on Dec. 16, would make it a federal crime just to be in the United States illegally. The law even penalizes those who assist undocumented personsincluding church and social service groups. Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernadino, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, has said that it would unduly harm immigrants and their families, even...currently lawful residents.
Even with increasing numbers of Border Patrol agents, Minuteman vigilantes, costly high-tech gadgetry like infrared imaging devices and drones (unmanned aircraft), as well as physical barriers, nothing has significantly reduced the flow of undocumented poor people pouring across the border. Nor have they prevented the increasing number of deaths of migrantsover one a day from heat or hypothermia in deserts and mountains. Many do get across, though, and it is estimated that 11 million now live and work in the United States. Despite the objections of some that undocumented immigrants take jobs from citizens, many growers, contractors, landscapers, and hotel and restaurant owners are often glad to employ them. Why? Because they take the kinds of hands-on, entry-level jobs many Americans shun.
No one would deny, though, that problems do exist along the Mexican-U.S. border. The governors of two states have declared a state of emergency. On Aug. 12, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico declared a state of emergency in some border counties, citing violence related to the smuggling of both immigrants and drugs as his reason. Arizona’s Governor Janet Napolitano soon followed suit. In other parts of the country, local citizens have taken matters into their own hands. In Herndon, Va., for instance, so-called Minutemen regularly visit sites where day laborers wait for prospective employers. The Minutemen photograph them and also the license plates of vans that come by seeking workers for jobs like painting, construction and landscaping.
How then, should genuine immigration reform be approached? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has backed a bill introduced by Senator John McCain (Republian of Arizona) and Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts), the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005. It would allow those already here to remain after paying a fine. Most important, the McCain-Kennedy Act offers a path to eventual citizenship. It is this proposed legislation that most closely reflects the thinking of the U.S. and Mexican bishops in their joint pastoral statement in 2003, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.
Bishop Barnes has noted that this journey of hope is one which each of us is called to make in solidarity with migrants, immigrants, refugees, human trafficking victims, and other people on the move seeking justice and peace. He adds: Never has this call to solidarity been needed more than today, when men and women who have come to our land seeking a better life for themselves and their families face discrimination and exploitation.
One way to avoid these injustices would be through a program like the Kennedy-McCain bill. It would meet the needs of businesses while providing an eventual road to citizenship. We hope that when the Senate acts on the issue later this year, some of the more onerous aspects of the House bill will be removed and more positive approaches pursued. As the Catholic Charities’ 2005 policy paper, Justice for Newcomers, pointed out, Congress should enact broad immigration reform legislation that puts undocumented laborers and their families on the path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship. The same policy paper also calls for expanded legal means for future workers to enter and remain here. Both are essential for addressing immigration reform in a positive manner.