Immigration Reform at Last?

The 700-mile fence rising between the United States and Mexico stands as a dramatic symbol of the separation between a rich nation and a poor one. But it also serves as a symbol of our failed immigration policies. The wall and other restrictionist efforts are painful reminders of the misguided direction in which Congress has been twisting the issue over the past few years. The recent dramatic shake-up in the House and Senate, however, could open the way for reforms that advocates, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have long desired. President Bush himself has spoken of the need to regularize the status of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States.

The growing fence on the southwestern border with Mexico is partly virtualit covers physically unfenced areas by means of technological gadgetry like electronic sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, along with the ever-growing number of Border Patrol agents, backed up by the National Guard. It runs through four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The U.S. bishops, along with pro-immigrant groups, have argued that there is little reason to expect that the Secure Fence Act of 2006signed into law on Sept. 29will keep out many of the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants who come to the United States annually. A significant number of those here, moreover, entered legally and simply overstayed their visas. Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Immigration, said in a letter in September to U.S. senators that while nations have the right to control their borders, the ever-lengthening barrier would lead to increased exploitation of undocumented persons through more and riskier human smuggling.


Since 1995 some 3,000 people have died trying to cross the border through desert and mountainous areas. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that deaths have increased as migrants avoid the ever more closely controlled areas. Even some of the governors who struggle with the issue of undocumented immigrants have expressed reservations about the efficacy of the fence. Arizona’s Governor Janet Napolitano, for example, reportedly said, Show me a 50-foot high fence, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder on the border.

The Secure Fence Act, though, is not the only form of restrictionist policy presently in place. In some states and localities, police officers have been deputized to enforce immigration laws. An officer who stops a driver for a minor traffic violation, for example, could order a background check to determine immigration status. Advocates have argued that the driver’s skin color and Latino appearance can provoke such stops, and that they therefore amount to racial profiling. Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, told America that many police departments oppose this expansion of their powers, concerned that undocumented persons would not report crimes, including crimes of domestic violence, out of fear of deportation.

What kinds of reform, then, are most appropriate? The bishops and other advocates strongly favor both employment-based immigration and family-based immigration reform. The need for the former is key, because the government issues only 5,000 visas a year for unskilled laborers. And yet a majority of the roughly half million who enter the country yearly manage to find work. As Mr. Kerwin put it, there is an obvious disconnect between labor needs and immigration policies.

The need for family-based reform is also evident; present laws tend to keep families divided instead of uniting them. The citizen wife of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who may have lived and worked here for years, for instance, with citizen children born here, could petition for her husband’s status to be legalized. But the husband would typically have to return to Mexico and wait eight or nine years before being legally readmitted and united with his family. The law thus pits a person’s moral commitment to his family against the legal requirement.

Whatever changes take place in the next Congress, the need to abandon the enforcement-only approach is long overdue. Reforms should provide a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million undocumented persons already here, and also for those whofence or no fencewill continue to find ways of entering the country in search of a life based on legitimate work that would enable them to support themselves and their families. The lengthening fence stands in direct contradiction to the spirit of the 2003 pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. The next Congress has a chance to embody the bishops’ message in life-giving ways. May they act upon that chance.

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