North African migrants seeking refuge in Italy face a perilous journey across Mediterranean waters. In the past two decades some 6,000 have perished at sea en route to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia. Pope Francis, in his first trip outside Rome as pope, visited Lampedusa on July 8 and dropped a wreath of flowers into the Mediterranean as a sign of mourning. In his homily that day, the pope decried a “globalization of indifference,” which has “taken from us the ability to weep” for those immigrants who died, including young mothers with babies and young fathers trying to support their families.
Pope Francis’ poignant witness and call for compassion and action are especially timely for Americans as the fate of comprehensive immigration reform hangs in the balance in the House of Representatives. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, writes in America (“After Lampedusa,” Web only) that Francis’ homily in Lampedusa “challenges people everywhere to drastically reconsider our conversations about the immigrants living and working in our midst.” As the House debates border security measures, legal protections for immigrant workers and whether to extend legal residency or citizenship status to undocumented immigrants, it is essential to keep in mind how these policies will affect the lives of our immigrant sisters and brothers.
The prospects of revamping the nation’s immigration laws received a boost on June 27 when the Senate passed a reform bill, 68 to 32. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—all members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight who initially drafted the legislation—were among 14 Republicans who voted for it. The comprehensive landmark bill allows more visas for skilled laborers, a new visa program for farmworkers, greater workplace protections, a significant increase in border security and an arduous 13-year pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in this country. The security measures, introduced late to draw additional Republican support for the bill, come with a $46 billion price tag. The bill adds 20,000 border agents, completes 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and invests $3.2 billion in technology upgrades.
Some believed that this legislation, by including a pathway to citizenship and increased border security, represented a grand compromise that could win support in the Republican-controlled House. The House, however, seems intent on passing separate pieces of legislation rather than one comprehensive bill, and at this point none include a pathway to citizenship. There is a bipartisan Gang of Seven in the House, but they have yet to unveil their own bill.
Diverse interest groups have united to support an overhaul of the current system. Labor unions have joined with business interests, recognizing that immigration reform will strengthen the economy. Prominent conservative activists and donors, including the tax reform activist Grover Norquist, have voiced support for reform. Religious groups have inspired pro-reform efforts. Polls indicate there is overwhelming, bipartisan support for reform, including a pathway to citizenship, among Americans.
After the presidential election in November, in which 71 percent of Hispanic voters supported President Obama, many Republicans believed it was past time for the party to shed its anti-immigrant reputation and favor reform. Considering the recent popular support for reform and the political incentive to woo a growing Hispanic electorate, one wonders why House Republicans are hesitant to support the Senate’s compromise bill. Some political observers point to the recent Congressional redistricting. Many House Republicans represent increasingly conservative districts where supporting a pathway to citizenship is regarded as rewarding criminal activity. These representatives might support immigration reform but fear being labeled an “amnesty candidate” in a tough primary challenge.
Three quarters of the undocumented immigrants in the United States have lived here for more than a decade, and the group represents 5.2 percent of the U.S. labor force. They pay taxes but cannot vote or obtain a driver’s license. They have families but live in fear of deportation and separation from children. Some politicians propose legalization without citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This path, however, would create a second-class group that contributes to society but receives little protection. Senator McCain, speaking at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. event last month, said that “without the protections of citizenship,” many of these immigrants could be “exploited and mistreated in a broad variety of ways. That’s not what America is supposed to be all about.” This is the compassion Pope Francis described in Lampedusa. This is why the House needs to pass a comprehensive bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
This week's Podcast: J.P., an undocumented immigrant for most of her life, speaks about why her family moved from South Korea to the United States, the challenges she faced as an undocumented immigrant and how gaining temporary legal status changed her life.