When asked about immigration on April 6, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida made a distinction between those who overstay visas and those who enter the country illegally “because they had no other means to work” and were concerned about providing food for their children. “Yes, they broke the law,” he explained, “but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.” With immigration reform legislation at a standstill in Congress and the number of deported immigrants under President Barack Obama nearing two million, Mr. Bush’s accurate and compassionate portrayal of our immigrant brothers and sisters offers some hope. Will his fellow politicians heed the message and throw their support behind comprehensive immigration reform in 2014?
A report released last month during a meeting co-hosted by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues that Congress should pass immigration reform, but for a seldom expressed purpose: the benefit of U.S. businesses. The report, “A Crucial Piece of the Puzzle: Demographic Change and Why Immigrants are Needed to Fill America’s Less-Skilled Labor Gap,” explains that between 1990 and 2010, the supply of low-skill jobs—those requiring a high school degree or less—has remained steady. But the number of U.S.-born workers willing to fill these positions has drastically fallen, dropping by nearly 1 percent each year.
Because of this drop, employers across the country struggle to fill certain positions. Farmers, for example, are sometimes forced to abandon crops because they have no workers to harvest them. The report says that factors like lower birth rates and increasing educational opportunities in the United States make immigrant workers not only helpful to the U.S. economy but essential. Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, believes it is time for Congress to address this widening gap. “Immigration reform would create a means to bring in more workers to carry the load created by demographic realities,” he said in a statement.
The recent visit to Arizona by members of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration also stressed the need for immigration reform. On April 1, several bishops, led by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz., and celebrated Mass for the thousands of migrants who have died crossing the desert. As hundreds of people gathered on both sides of the border, Cardinal O’Malley said in his homily, “The hard work and sacrifices of so many immigrant peoples is the secret of the success of this country.” The cardinal described the negative attitudes toward immigrants as “xenophobic ranting” and reminded the public that the “immigrant population contributes mightily to the economy and well-being of the United States.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (No. 2241). At the same time, governments also have a right and duty to secure their borders and enforce immigration laws. In reflecting on these principles, the U.S. Catholic bishops have rightly rejected an “enforcement only” approach and outlined several components of reform: an earned legalization program that includes a path to citizenship; family-based provisions that increase the number of family visas and reduce the waiting time for family reunification; and a worker program that allows foreigners to enter the country legally and protects their rights. The worker program would help U.S. businesses fill the low-skilled worker gap.
Last June, the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill that, though not perfect, includes many of the provisions outlined by the U.S. bishops. Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, then chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said the legislation passed by the Senate improves upon the status quo, a state of affairs that “causes much suffering among immigrants and their families and must end.” The House of Representatives should pass this bill, which President Obama is poised to sign.
The United States needs to recognize the value of immigrants not only for economic reasons but also for their social and cultural contributions. In “More Deeply Into the World” (Reply All, 4/21), Michael Baxter and William T. Cavanaugh refer to the blessed “mixedness” of immigrants, the diversity Latino immigrants bring to the United States through their blend of U.S. and Latino culture. We should also remember, as Cardinal O’Malley said, that these immigrants “will be the citizens of tomorrow,” and we “cannot be indifferent in the face of such suffering.”