On March 21, 2010, I addressed some 250,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a rally in support of comprehensive immigration reform. In my remarks, I pledged that the Catholic Church would never stop advocating for our immigrant brothers and sisters and that we would continue to defend their right to be full members of our communities and nation.
That same day, as you may remember, our country’s Congressional legislators were voting on landmark health care reform legislation. It was the culmination of a partisan battle that left both sides bitter and exhausted. And so, in conversation with a few key legislators and their aides the next day, I was disappointed but not altogether surprised to discover that a bipartisan push for comprehensive immigration reform seemed yet again to be drifting off the legislative agenda and into a fog of uncertainty and inaction.
Thank you, Arizona!
With the stroke of her pen, Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer not only signed into law the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant legislation; she also helped to reinvigorate the comprehensive immigration reform movement and has made clear the consequences of the failure to fix our nation’s broken immigration system. As President Obama said on April 23 at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members: “Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others. And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”
One main section of the Arizona law illustrates the disappointment so many of us feel at this time. Article 8, Section 2, Paragraph B of S.B. 1070 sums it up in its vague and vexing language:
For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the persons. The person’s immigration status shall be verified with the federal government pursuant to 8 United States Code section 1373(c) [emphasis added].
On the night of Thursday, April 29, H.B. 2162 was hurriedly passed in Arizona because of the torrent of opposition generated across the country in regard to S.B. 1070. The “reasonable suspicion” language remains as quoted above, but the “lawful contact” wording was changed to focus upon secondary enforcement. But the changes could actually result in more people being questioned about their legal status when the police are enforcing any state or local law or even local ordinances. Does this mean that simple infractions such as overgrown yards, parking on streets and nonfunctioning cars in driveways could spark a check on legal status?
The obvious fear is that untold numbers of people will be challenged to prove their legal status in our country—sending further fear and fright across the immigrant community. Neither the governor nor any major Arizona official has been willing to publish a one-page set of criteria to guide law enforcement personnel on what “reasonable suspicion” means in the field.
So it is with a renewed sense of energy and urgency that I address you. I begin with a few theological musings that reflect our church’s concern for the immigrant and the stranger. Then I share something of my sense of where things are politically regarding the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. I conclude with an invitation for all of us to view our immigrant peoples no longer as strangers or statistics, but to see and hear them as real, flesh-and-blood human beings—neighbors, family members—whose lives are adversely affected every day that our leaders fail to enact just and fair immigration reform.
Hearing the Stranger
Speaking of hearing and of justice, it is intriguing that in the Bible injustice is often discussed as a serious “hearing problem.”
In the biblical tradition, injustice is often treated as being related to two kinds of hearing problems. The first problem is not only our own inability or even unwillingness to hear the cries of suffering from our own brothers and sisters. That is bad enough. Just as serious is the second biblical hearing problem. This is the fact that Scripture teaches that God most certainly does hear the cries of suffering. This, too, can be serious for us, because both biblical hearing problems have serious implications for how we think about suffering.
What does Scripture tell us about these problems?
The first act of violent injustice was Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel. Genesis portrays God demanding an explanation from Cain: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’” (Gn 4:10). The text suggests that God “hears” the blood of oppression and suffering.
It is precisely God’s hearing the cries of injustice that led the Israelites to “cry to God” in their suffering as slaves and alien workers in Egypt: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God” (Ex 2:23).
The Bible teaches that God’s hearing began the great act of liberation that gives birth to God’s people. Israel is created from this redemption from the oppression of slavery. Pharaoh’s hearing problem had its consequences. Moses, according to the tradition, warns us that God will certainly hear the prayers of those we might oppress or abuse: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (Ex 22:21-23).
The writer of Proverbs states that we must also listen to the cries of the poor, or God will close off God’s ears to our own cries. In a very powerful sense, when it comes to the prayers of the suffering, our hearing problems will become God’s hearing problems when it comes to our own prayers: “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard” (Prv 21:13).
The earliest Christians witness to this same hearing problem. The New Testament also teaches that the leader of the first Jerusalem church, St. James, sometimes referred to as James the Just, spoke about this: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (Jas 5:4).
How pertinent are the words of James. Who, in fact, “mows the fields” of California and this nation today? Who, in fact, are the harvesters whose wages we have underpaid, whose provisions for health care we have resented, despite their back-breaking work to provide for our dinner tables?
Achieving Immigration Reform
The horrific new anti-immigrant law in Arizona presents a new opportunity for our federal officials to rise above the political divisions and posturing that killed reform legislation in 2006 and 2007. Republicans and Democrats recognize the important growth and strength of the Latino vote. Both parties are scrambling to claim it but have yet to take action.
Right now in Congress, the Democratic leadership is preparing legislation for introduction. New York’s Senator Charles Schumer is taking the lead on this and has been working hard to achieve a bipartisan consensus. I call upon both parties to go that extra mile to reach an agreement that can pass Congress and be signed by the president—sooner rather than later.
The central feature of reform should be to bring the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and offer them a secure path to legal status. In return, these immigrants must learn English, pay a fine and work for several years before earning the right to receive permanent legal status. Some have described this grueling journey as amnesty. They are wrong. What is being proposed is a path forward that will require enormous sacrifices on the part of the immigrants every step of the way. Another feature of reform would provide for a new worker visa program that would allow more migrant workers to enter the United States legally; improvements to our family-based reunification system should also be included in any reform bill.
Enacting comprehensive immigration reform also makes economic sense. In January, the Center for American Progress released a report, “Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” by Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, showing that enforcement-only policies actually perpetuate unauthorized migration and exert downward pressure on already low wages. By contrast, immigration policies that result in worker empowerment, legal status and labor rights would exert upward pressure on all wages, yielding at least $1.5 trillion in cumulative U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years.
In March, a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that 70 percent of Californians said illegal immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for at least two years should be allowed to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status. Fifty-four percent believed that immigrants were a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills.
Attitudes toward immigrants are beginning to change, but we need to do more to ensure that we do not become a nation that treats those who “look foreign” as suspect, to be investigated, even arrested, merely on the basis of their appearance.
This is where Catholic leaders and institutions like Fordham University come into the equation. We need to continue to educate Catholics who are ambivalent or undecided about immigration reform. We need to urge them to “come out of the shadows” themselves and become involved in the solution.
The Catholic community is central to victory and justice on this issue. We are an immigrant church ourselves, since the founding days of the republic. The immigrant experience is our own, having come to these shores from all parts of the world. We should be front and center in leading the charge for immigration reform—not only because it is a matter of justice but also because it is part of our identity, of what we are as a church. Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself an itinerant preacher with “no place to lay his head” and a refugee who fled the terror of Herod. When we welcome the newcomer, in person or through our advocacy efforts, we welcome him. As we have seen, Scripture is clear that even when we do not hear the cry of the immigrant, God most certainly does.
Author’s Note: I have begun to interview personally our undocumented brothers and sisters. Some of the interviews are already available for viewing at www.facesofimmigrants.org.