By Susan Stevenot Sullivan | Published September 7, 2006
Georgia now has the seventh largest population of undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Gwinnett County, where I have lived for more than 10 years, has been dubbed “Georgia’s largest immigrant hub.” My neighbors are from Bosnia, China, India, Korea, Mexico and Vietnam (not to mention Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New York and New Jersey).
Along with new faces, new challenges and new opportunities in Georgia, there is new (or perhaps old) anger and resentment—evident in newspapers, talk shows, political campaigns and churches, including Catholic parishes.
And “evident” took on a new, gut-churning meaning when I, along with other members of the archdiocesan staff, attended two U.S. House immigration field hearings held recently in the North Georgia cities of Gainesville and Dalton. Testimony at these “public hearings” was by invitation only and was intended to show that undocumented immigrants are having a detrimental effect on the health-care system and work force.
Since no one from the archdiocese was permitted to speak, a written statement from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, reiterating his call and the U.S. bishops’ call for comprehensive legislation to fix our broken immigration system, was submitted for the official record.
Most of the testimony at both hearings was anti-immigrant and supportive of border enforcement only, in line with the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. House earlier this year. The House bill would make undocumented immigrants—and perhaps the church, charity and medical workers who “aid and abet” such newcomers by assisting them with basic needs—criminals. Reps. Charlie Norwood and Nathan Deal, R-Ga., who were present at both hearings, played to the crowd, deriding the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed in the U.S. Senate and promising that there would be no compromise bill.
There was a heavy law enforcement presence at both hearings and picketing outside. Each lasted about two hours with the capacity crowds consisting mainly of older, white attendees. Near the end of the Gainesville hearing, Norwood received loud applause when he exclaimed, “Immigration should be about what’s right for Americans first, not what’s right for people all around the world.”
The anger at the hearings was palpable. People could hardly restrain themselves, muttering under their breath, cheering and jeering at times. There was powder-keg energy in the air both days. I experienced waves of outrage and astonishment. I felt sick to my stomach. I had to remember that the attitudes I was witnessing are driven by fear and isolation and have old roots in our nation’s history. I had to stop thinking and pray. I’m still praying.
I thought of my family, of my great-grandfather, Cornelius Dwyer, who was a miner in Minnesota and Colorado. He, along with fellow Irish and Chinese co-workers, helped build the western end of the transcontinental railroad because their lives were of little value—and there were many deaths and serious injuries. “Conn” and his wife, Martha, watched five of their six children die of disease one winter. My great-grandmother wrote epitaphs for tombstones and raised mine canaries (toxic gases would kill the canaries before the miners), earning “egg money” to help with expenses, while fortunes were made by others in the mining and railroad industries. I have Conn’s green eyes and Martha’s interest in writing.
Almost everyone who was present in the hearing rooms at Gainesville and Dalton is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our immigrant ancestors were brought to this country against their will, a practice now called trafficking, the modern word for the old practice of slavery.
The Union Terminal History Center in Cincinnati features local front pages with hateful statements about immigrants from more than a century ago—the time-tested ones we reuse generations later—“too many children” … “taking jobs from Americans” … “won’t learn English” … “unclean” … “ignorant.” The exhibit features cartoons encouraging bigotry against Catholics and Irish immigrants.
I thought about how undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government entitlements, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly welfare) or food stamps, though some politicians say otherwise. Undocumented people are eligible for public health and safety programs, like emergency medical care, school lunches and immunizations. There are costs, but according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Georgia’s undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $252 million annually in state and local taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay approximately $20 billion dollars to the Social Security system each year, money they will never receive, money which will help millions of aging Americans.
According to the 2005 Economic Report of the President, most low-skill immigrant workers do not compete directly with native workers. Other studies show a slight depression in hourly wages in areas where native-born and immigrant workers do compete. The Pew Hispanic Center reported recently that studies found no evidence that increases in immigration have led to higher unemployment.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that, during the 1990s, 11 job categories would have experienced worker shortages without the presence of immigrant workers. The Department of Labor currently predicts a shortage of 2 million low-skill workers in the United States by 2010. The Cato Institute points out that the new arrivals are new consumers, creating needs for goods and services. Historically, most major waves of immigration to the United States have been accompanied by economic growth, though the fruits are unevenly distributed.
I thought about how there is no legal path to citizenship for most people coming across the U.S./Mexico border; there is no paper to sign or line to stand in, but there is death in the border desert nearly every day. Ellis Island-style entry ended generations ago. Our current complicated system of immigration quotas is not adequate or fair, according to Georgia business leaders.
Other paths are problematic too. Once they become citizens, parents can apply for legal entry for their unmarried children. The current backlog for such offspring from Mexico means more than a 10-year wait. I have met devoutly Catholic young people who are living in committed relationships and raising children without benefit of marriage because marrying would remove them from the glacial wait list. Many of those waiting come here illegally, rather than endure years of separation from loved ones.
“America’s immigration system is also outdated, unsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country. We should not be content with laws that punish hard-working people who want to provide for their families, and deny businesses willing workers, and invite chaos at our border,” President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address in 2005.
Undocumented immigrants continue to play vital roles in the carpet and poultry-dominated economies of Dalton and Gainesville, as they have for more than a decade. The same is true for the economy of the state of Georgia. I have spoken with undocumented workers in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina, who have been cheated of wages or suffered permanent disability due to unsafe, unfair working conditions—and they are afraid to report what has happened. Many immigrants, documented and undocumented, live in fear as immigrant bashing becomes acceptable conversation.
Are immigrants the goose laying the golden egg of our economy or the vulture devouring it? Is the truth somewhere in between? How is the treatment of immigrants the business of the church? Some say this has nothing to do with sacraments or Sunday Mass and should not be taking up space in the archdiocesan newspaper or the archbishop’s agenda.
I thought about the variety of immigrants attending overcrowded English classes at St. Vincent de Paul in Chamblee and the help they and others receive from parishioners, archdiocesan and parish staff and those in special ministries. Many parishes, schools and hospitals in the United States were founded by religious orders to help earlier waves of immigrants.
While making “Justice for Immigrants” presentations in parishes around the archdiocese, I meet frightened immigrant parishioners as well as parishioners with the same attitudes as those vocal attendees at the field hearings. Detailed information does not ease the rage of the latter. They arrive fuming and leave fuming.
What does it mean for all humans to be made in the image and likeness of God? What does it mean to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What does it mean that what we do for the least, the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick, we do for God—and that is how our lives will be judged for eternity? What does it mean that all human life, not just American life, is precious, possessing God-given dignity that should be respected?
Catholic social teaching also tells us that people have rights and responsibilities to family and community, that workers should be paid a just wage and work in safe conditions, that those who are poor should receive special help so that everyone can prosper, and that we must stand with those who are vulnerable. These are the questions and challenges of a spiritual lifetime and of the journey of the Catholic Church—a church in the United States that in 1910 was 75 percent immigrant, with the German, Polish and Irish parish churches within sight of each other in many cities.
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Pope Benedict XVI says, “‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist that does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” (14) He also says, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation ‘in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.’” (29)
We need to pray and work together to address the misunderstandings, the anger and the fear in our communities. We need to demand just laws and real dialog.
Our faith history is that of immigrants, from the Old Testament’s Promised Land to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. The Good Samaritan helped a neighbor who was an ethnic enemy. We must pray to understand who our neighbor is, so we can love them as we love ourselves—and as God loves us. When it comes to immigration, “they” are us.
Susan Stevenot Sullivan is the director of parish and social justice ministries for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Inc. Additional information in English and Spanish from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is available at www.justiceforimmigrants.org. Information on teaching English classes is available from the Catholic Charities outreach center program; presentations on Catholic social teaching and topics such as Justice for Immigrants are available from the Catholic Charities parish and social justice ministries program. Visit www.catholiccharitiesatlanta.org.