Over the years, I have found that some Catholics express their opposition to the presence of undocumented immigrants in the United States by asking: “What part of illegal do you not understand?”
It is true that people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border break the law. At the same time, I have learned how important it is to put this choice and this act into context.
At the Kino Border Initiative, our ministry is to migrants in Nogales, Sonora, just across the border from its twin city, Nogales, Ariz. About 70 percent of the migrants we serve tell us that they cross for economic reasons. They literally cannot provide for their families in Mexico, Central America or Haiti.
Families face a painful decision: wait many years to be considered for a visa or just cross the border without documentation in order to be reunited with loved ones.
About 17 percent of migrants come because of separation from children, spouses and other family members, while about 9 percent have come fleeing violence both in Mexico and Central America. Nations have a right to secure their borders but, as Catholic Social Teaching reminds us, people also have the right to migrate if they cannot have a dignified life in their country of origin.
Our current system keeps our neighbors from seeking a dignified way of life because of restrictions on work and family visas. It is also extremely difficult to seek and obtain asylum in the United States for those escaping criminal, political or state-sponsored violence in their home countries.
Many of these migrants would love nothing more than to come to the United States legally, yet they have no way to do so in conformity with current U.S. immigration law. This reality reflects the brokenness of our immigration system. The fact is that for many people without professional skills or money there is no path to legal immigration.
The broken system makes family unification an unnecessary trial. According to the U.S. State Department Visa bulletin, for example, the visa applications of unmarried Mexican sons and daughters of U.S. citizens before June 1, 1996 are still being reviewed. This means that these applicants have waited decades for a response to their application, due to the annual numerical limits the U.S. government places on this particular visa category for Mexicans. Families face a painful decision: wait many years to be considered for a visa or just cross the border without documentation in order to be reunited with loved ones.
U.S. law keeps migrants from seeking and finding a dignified way of life, a desire which God has for all of us. It forces them into far reaches of the border where they risk being victims of robbery, assault and death on the desert. It keeps family members separated and prevents migrant men, women and children from finding safety through asylum in the United States.
Archbishop John Wester, leader of the Diocese of Santa Fe, N.M., has said that it is not a question of whether or not migrants are breaking the law, but if the law is breaking them. Instead of focusing on enforcement methods that punish those who are living and working among us already—and their children—we should be turning our attention to reforming U.S. immigration law so that it respects migrant’s human dignity, a value we cherish both as Catholics and as Americans.