In early October, the Trump administration released a set of immigration principles and policies that include: cutting legal immigration substantially, with the elimination of several family-based admission categories; the removal of protections for unaccompanied children fleeing gangs in Central America; a weakening of asylum standards for all those fleeing persecution; a significant increase in immigration enforcement agents; and, of course, funding for a border wall with Mexico. Although studies show that immigrants strengthen our economy and fill low-skilled jobs Americans generally reject, the administration justified the proposals as ways to protect U.S. workers.
The White House said that its wish list would be part of the negotiations over a legislative solution for the 800,000 undocumented youths affected by the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But immigrant advocacy groups said this was a sign the president is not serious about passing a Dream Act giving those now protected by DACA a path to citizenship. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also opposed the administration’s wish list as being harmful to immigrant families.
The next step for immigrant advocates, including the bishops, is our own wish list—starting with a plan that would legalize and integrate all undocumented immigrants into the society. We should call the president’s ante and raise it.
What would a Catholic immigration wish list look like? Our first clue comes from the pastoral statement of the U.S. and Mexican bishops in 2003, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” released in 2003,which lays out principles for immigration reform based on Catholic social teaching. From this statement and from other Catholic sources, including the teaching of Pope Francis, a robust immigration agenda emerges that would reform the system in a humane and fair way. Here are some of its main elements.
A path to citizenship for the undocumented in the United States. A path to citizenship for the undocumented population, now at 11 million, should be the central tenet of any immigration reform bill, as it would bring an underground population out of the shadows. As the U.S. bishops have pointed out, a path to citizenship would keep families together and enable immigrants to fully integrate into society. The path to citizenship should be fair and achievable within a reasonable time period.
While it is the most important aspect of any solution, a path to citizenship also would be the most controversial, and it would be anathema to President Trump’s political base, who want all undocumented persons deported and label any form of legal status as “amnesty.” But it is critical to reforming the system, as it would ensure that everyone is on the right side of the law before the rules change. And it is hardly a giveaway, as undocumented immigrants would have to travel an arduous path to attain citizenship, including paying a fine, working and paying taxes, and waiting at least 10 years before becoming eligible for citizenship status.
Reform of the legal immigration system. The Catholic approach calls for both making the legal immigration system more efficient and creating additional legal avenues for low-skilled workers. The first goal calls for a reduction in the waiting times for family reunification permanent visas (green cards), which in some categories (like siblings and adult married children) can take decades.
On the labor side, there are only 5,000 green cards in the immigration system nationwide for low-skilled workers, despite the demand for immigrant workers in industries like service, construction and agriculture. These green card numbers must be increased; as “Strangers No Longer”advocates, a visa program that protects the rights of immigrant workers and gives them a chance to earn permanent residency would help meet this labor demand. Currently, the needs of the low-skilled labor market generally are being met by undocumented workers, who are subject to abuse and exploitation.
This vision is antithetical to the Trump agenda, which would bar family members who can be sponsored for entry under current rules and replace a part of the employment-based system with a point system skewed toward wealthy and highly skilled immigrants. But with the U.S. workforce aging, baby boomers retiring and birth rates at a nearly all-time low, the Trump approach would leave the U.S. economy with severe worker shortages in the decades ahead. We need new workers of all skill levels, not just the well-educated.
We need new workers of all skill levels, not just the well-educated.
Strengthening the asylum system. Perhaps the most mean-spirited item on the Trump administration’s list is the elimination of asylum protections for unaccompanied alien children fleeing gang violence in Central America. A 2008 trafficking law requires that all unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries be given a chance to present their asylum claims to an immigration judge. The Trump administration instead wants to subject these children to expedited removal, a process that would leave the fate of each in the hands of a single immigration officer.
The administration wants to expand the use of expedited removal throughout the country and make it harder for refugees to establish a valid claim for protection. This is in addition to significantly lowering the cap on refugees to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018, the lowest since the White House began setting a cap in 1980. In effect, the administration is, step by step, weakening the U.S. protection system for persons fleeing persecution.
In effect, the administration is, step by step, weakening the U.S. protection system for persons fleeing persecution.
Instead of reducing protection for the persecuted, the Catholic position would be to ensure that all asylum seekers are granted due process protections consistent with international law. This would require more resources to bring efficiency to the immigration court system, which currently has large backlogs, and to provide legal representation for asylum seekers, especially children. Moreover, the use of expedited removal would be limited to those who legitimately threaten national security.
Immigration enforcement. Catholic teaching recognizes the right of a sovereign nation to control its borders and to enforce the law. The question is how such enforcement is conducted.
Human rights and dignity should be paramount in the enforcement of immigration law. Due process protections, the elimination of unnecessary detention and access to counsel are essential elements of a just system.
But the Trump administration’s focus is on increasing resources for the deportation of immigrants through 10,000 more enforcement agents, 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and more immigration judges to conduct deportation hearings on the border. Combined with a presidential executive order that essentially makesallundocumented immigrants a priority for enforcement, this is a formula for the mass deportation of immigrants who have lived in the United States for years and have built equities in their communities—exactly the people who would benefit from a path to citizenship.
A study by the Center for Migration Studies, at which I am a senior director, found that, in addition to its humanitarian impact, mass deportation would drive immigrant families into poverty and weaken the U.S. economy. According to the report, the median income for households made up of both U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants (mostly children who are citizens and their undocumented parents) would drop by nearly 50 percent, while the nation’s gross domestic product would fall by $4.7 trillion over the next 10 years.
In addition to its humanitarian impact, mass deportation would drive immigrant families into poverty and weaken the U.S. economy.
The Catholic position would be to bring the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who are not a threat to our communities out of the shadows to register with the government and continue on a path to citizenship. Law enforcement could then focus on criminal threats. Additionally, a focus on workplace enforcement—both to protect immigrant workers and to ensure that employers are playing by the rules—would add to the integrity of our immigration system. But any employment verification system must be fairly applied and preceded by a legalization program for workers of all skill levels. We can then design a worker-flow system that limits underground labor and emphasizes legal migration.
Border security and the need to address root causes of flight. President Trump’s fixation on the construction of a several-billion-dollar wall across the 2,000-mile southern border has focused attention on border security, despite the fact that border apprehensions are at their lowest in at least 17 years. In fact, a C.M.S. study found that in 2014, two-thirds of the entrants into the undocumented population entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. Since 2007, visa overstayers have exceeded undocumented border crossers by one half million. This suggests that a border wall is unnecessary and expensive.
Also, a wall would not stop migrants from trying to enter the country to find a better life, as the factors driving them to leave remain stronger than any barriers erected to stop them. It would instead drive them into the hands of unscrupulous smugglers who would charge more and devise more dangerous routes into the United States.
As such, the church’s response to the proposal of a border wall has always been to address the “push” factors driving people to take dangerous journeys to reach the United States. If we address the endemic poverty and violence in the countries people are now fleeing, they could and would remain at home to support their families in security.
Since this is a long-term solution that requires global cooperation and commitment, it is not considered politically realistic by many in Washington. Nevertheless, it is possible. As the Mexican economy has improved, for example, the number of Mexican workers crossing the border, according to our data at C.M.S., has decreased by 11 percent over the past five years.
President Trump’s list of immigration principles will not necessarily blow up any negotiation to protect undocumented youth and enact a Dream Act, but it certainly makes things more complicated. If the administration sticks to the position that its immigration list must be included in any deal, then its purpose all along has been to prevent passage of a Dream Act. A more likely (and hopeful) scenario is that the administration and Congress will attempt to find common ground, a compromise in which all sides are not completely satisfied but each comes away having met some of its goals.
But in working for a broader fix to our broken immigration system, the Catholic community, regardless of the current political climate, should not shrink from the principles included in “Strangers No Longer,”which lay out just and humane reforms to the system.
As Catholics, we have cards to play in the national immigration debate and should not be afraid to lay them on the table. Let us not recoil because of the fear being peddled by some in the political world. Let’s call their bluff.
An abridged version of this essay appears on the Dec. 25, 2017, issue of America.