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People participate in a procession for immigrant rights July 13, 2019, in the streets surrounding St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The new film “Cabrini” tells the story of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Catholic patron saint of immigrants. Born in 1850 in what is now northern Italy, Mother Cabrini founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and immigrated to New York City in 1889 to minister to the teeming population of recently arrived immigrants, primarily Italians. The film portrays Mother Cabrini setting sail for America, establishing herself in New York and encountering prejudice, including from city officials, in her work with the destitute immigrant population in the city’s slums and tenements. For the rest of her life, Mother Cabrini worked tirelessly to establish a network of schools, hospitals and orphanages, improving the fortunes of countless immigrants and their families.

Between 1870 and 1920, more than four million Italian immigrants came to the United States, part of a great wave of Southern and Eastern European migrants fleeing poverty, joblessness and violence to seek the better life that America offered. Many U.S. journalists and politicians panicked over the new arrivals, stereotyping them as inferior, criminal and out to steal American jobs

Immigration is a top concern for the United States today, too, and the rhetoric and talking points from the 19th century are eerily similar to our modern debate. Although Catholics celebrate the life of Mother Cabrini, even some of the faithful now ask, with respect to today’s immigrants: “Why can’t they come legally, like my ancestors did?”
Mother Cabrini became America’s first saint. But was she herself a legal U.S. immigrant? And would her story be possible today? 

The truth is, most of the immigrants with whom Mother Cabrini worked carried no papers and faced only the most cursory of border inspections. Indeed, it was only after 1917 that immigrants to the United States even needed visas. Mother Cabrini herself most likely arrived without formal immigration documents. She did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 1909, or 20 years after her arrival.

If Mother Cabrini came to the United States today, she would most likely do so with an R-1 religious worker visa, which would permit her to stay up to 60 months with renewal. But because of federal processing backlogs, after that initial five-year period, she would likely have to return to Italy, re-apply for a new visa and apply for lawful permanent residency and eventually citizenship over a decade later to continue her ministry.

And whom would she serve in her ministry? It is easy to imagine that Mother Cabrini would still seek to minister to immigrants suffering in America. Yet today, she would encounter an additional obstacle: our broken immigration system, which fails to treat immigrants with human dignity because of its outdated laws, complexity and inefficiency. 

Despite our ostensible welcome of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, as inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the modern immigration system lacks a viable pathway for immigrants from poor backgrounds who wish to make a better life in the United States. Today’s “huddled masses”—low-income immigrants who are escaping intertwined issues such as persecution, violence and lack of economic opportunity—face extremely limited options to apply for a visa from their home countries and obtain a U.S. visa that matches their skill sets.

At the same time, there is a desperate need for their labor in the United States—jobs that native-born Americans are unwilling to do. Further, immigration appears to be a key component to a rebounding economy. As a result, today’s huddled masses who seek the American dream may find opportunity, but there is often only one realistic option to pursue it: asylum.

Asylum is a legal U.S. immigration pathway that is only available to migrants who can prove that they have been persecuted (or are at risk of persecution) in their country of origin on the basis of at least one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, social group and political opinion. A record number of asylum seekers are arriving on the U.S. southern border and requesting asylum from border officials. While requesting asylum is legal, asylum seekers face lengthening odds, and the immigration as a whole faces unsustainable conditions. 

Asylum seekers must go through an arduous and adversarial legal process in immigration courts across the country to win the right to remain in the United States. During the past decade, fewer than one-fifth of applicants were granted asylum each year, and the cases themselves take years to be adjudicated. Only 30 percent of migrants are able to find legal representation, down from 65 percent five years ago. Work authorization takes months to be approved. Throughout this process, applicants can be detained or deported at a moment’s notice.

In addition, asylum seekers are barred from many government benefits by law, a common frustration among social workers. The backlog of asylum cases means that asylum seekers must live in a state of legal limbo until their cases are decided, complicating the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigration. Many applicants fall through the cracks of the system and never fully achieve asylum, destined to a life of living in the shadows. The system is dispiriting for immigrants and Americans alike. At times, it feels like it is designed for immigrants to fail.

It seems clear that if Mother Cabrini were alive today, she would dedicate her mission to creating a new American dream: a pathway that respects and upholds human dignity and reforms American immigration. That would demand congressional action, but that requires legislators and policymakers to negotiate in good faith, and there is little evidence that they are doing so.

Historically, there has been a preference for political point-scoring over finding solutions for immigrants, resulting in our country’s current predicament. Recently, for example, a bipartisan bill addressing both border security and the backlog of asylum cases succumbed to political dysfunction immediately after its introduction. Although the bill was imperfect, the failure to debate its provisions speaks to the brokenness of our politics on immigration. A key proponent of the bill, Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, made an excellent speech on how the purpose of governing is to solve problems—not hold press conferences. He was right: The country does not need more press conferences, and certainly not dueling border press conferences, to resolve the immigration crisis.

Until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform, Catholic organizations, religious orders and volunteers are called to follow their faith and work within the confines of the current broken system. In today’s polarized environment—where religious workers and organizations seeking to aid immigrants have faced increasing challenges to their efforts—Catholics should take comfort and inspiration from Mother Cabrini’s example. To find a path toward reform, we must remember Mother Cabrini and her ministry to immigrants. As they say in the old country, Santa Cabrini, prega per noi!

Correction 3/26/2024: A previous version of this text misspelled Mother Cabrini's name as Francis, rather than Frances. It has since been updated.

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