President Obama’s plan to essentially freeze most deportations of people without documentation in the United States would protect as many as 4.4 million people and their families. “Mass amnesty would be unfair,” the president said in a televised speech to the nation on Nov. 20. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character,” he said. “What I’m describing is accountability—a commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
The president’s proposals were warmly received by major Catholic bodies, with the consistent caution that this latest effort to rationalize the nation’s immigration policies remains far from complete and still leaves too many undocumented people out. Generous family reunification policies have been a consistent demand by the U.S. bishops and other Catholic agencies concerned with immigration.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, M.Sp.S., auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, welcomed the Obama administration proposals in a statement released on Nov. 21. “Each day, the Catholic Church in the United States, in her social service agencies, hospitals, schools and parishes, witnesses the human consequences of the separation of families, when parents are deported from their children or spouses from each other,” Bishop Elizondo said. “We’ve been on record asking the administration to do everything within its legitimate authority to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters. As pastors, we welcome any efforts within these limits that protect individuals and protect and reunite families and vulnerable children.”
Bill O’Keefe, vice president of advocacy and government relations for Catholic Relief Services, called the president’s plan “a temporary solution to problems in our outdated and unjust immigration system; and a ray of hope to the hopelessness in much of Mexico and Central America.” He added, “Ultimately, however, unless the conditions in migrants’ countries of origin are addressed on a larger scale, children and families will continue to leave.”
Asked to comment on the allegation that the president’s proposal is little more than a hidden amnesty program for people who have broken U.S. law, O’Keefe responded, “We are not rewarding people who broke the law, but admitting the truth that we drove people here through our own need for low-wage labor, our own trade policies that made it harder for people to live a decent life in their home country, our own support to unjust regimes and destabilizing conflicts.” He added, “If a two- to three-year reprieve from deportation is a reward for people who have been here working, raising families and paying taxes for years, what is punishment?”
Critics charge that the administration’s proposals go too far, but O’Keefe only wishes it would go a little further. No package put together in Washington is going to have much of an impact on migration from the south if it does not include wise investments aimed squarely at the conditions that push people across borders, he has concluded. “There are successful, scalable violence-prevention, education, agricultural-rural programs that could make a difference” in improving economic opportunity and living standards in Central America, where many contemporary migrants to the United States originate, he told America.
“We all know what could be done there in order to help people make the decision to stay,” he said. Why don’t people in Washington who say they want to deter undocumented migration back those plans? “Because we have defined the problem as one of border security,” said O’Keefe. “But building fences has ultimately never worked in human history.
“Rather than building fences, we need to address our indifference to life in Central America, and we can do that and that would be the smart thing to do.”
O’Keefe marvels at the vast sums many in Washington remain eager to spend in the relentless pursuit of better border control. “If the tens of billions we have spent on drones; on fences, walls; on militarizing our border had been spent on helping people in Central America support their families, we would not have this problem now,” he said.