Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


National Reform Must Address Undocumented Workers

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published marzo 2, 2006  | Available In English

Sue Colussy and other attorneys in the Catholic Legal Immigration Network believe that a more comprehensive national approach to immigration reform contained in the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy bill in the U.S. Senate will be more effective than an enforcement-only approach.

Budget spending on enforcement is now six times as much as it was in 1986, but the number of undocumented workers coming in has doubled. Since 1993 the U.S. government has spent approximately $25 billion on border enforcement initiatives and has tripled the number of agents along the border, and in that same time period more than 2,800 migrants have perished in the deserts of the American Southwest.

Campaign leaders in the U.S. bishops’ Justice for Immigrants campaign believe that bringing the undocumented workers seeking to make an honest living and their families out of the shadows will increase national security as it will let the government know who is here and allow it to focus more on smart enforcement and on finding those who are real threats to the country through smart inspections and screening processes, fair proceedings, efficient processing and strategies for stopping smugglers.

They argue that it won’t encourage more illegal immigration as the McCain bill (SB 1033) has the guest worker plan, with the number of visas driven by the market, though which employers can petition to adjust their status. In 1986 after legalization of two million workers wages went up in low-skill industries as workers could claim their rights, the USCCB reports.

The bill also protects the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. The JFI Web site states that “while the church supports the rule of law, there are times when laws should be examined through a justice lens and be changed. In many ways the current immigration system is broken and contributes to the abuse, exploitation and even deaths of migrants who otherwise contribute their work and talents to our nation. While undocumented immigrants are indeed outside the law, and thus break the law, the unjust, outdate and inadequate laws break them. Our nation cannot have it both ways.”

Colussy, director of Immigration Services of Catholic Social Services, said that the bill would reduce the backlog of cases; applications from 1994 are just now being considered from U.S. citizens to bring over adult children. Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented here are spouses and children who are part of the backlogged family reunification cases and didn’t want to wait years separated from family.

“It’s more pro-family,” she explained. “It’s a comprehensive bill, which is important. These piecemeal attempts to build a huge fence and all that sort of thing are just that. Unless it’s comprehensive, it’s not going to work. The thing about enforcement is, it’s just moving people to more dangerous places.”

The bill calls for a new employment eligibility confirmation electronic system to replace the existing I-9 paper-based system and determine eligibility in one day, includes punishment for hiring undocumented workers and would allocate more visas for highly skilled workers as well.

“The nice thing about that is it has a way for people who’ve been here to earn the right to stay. I wouldn’t call it amnesty, but it’s earned residency for a green card, and it eliminates some of the backlogs because the backlogs are still pretty awful,” said the lawyer. “If some businesses want to bring in a really talented scientist … they’ve got to wait because there aren’t enough visas. This would eliminate that.”

She believes HR 4437 Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 that passed the House of Representatives in December is “horrible” and pointed out that it not only criminalizes illegal aliens but also those who help them, which puts Catholic Charities and other social services providers around the county at risk. This may sound far-fetched, but workers with the group No More Deaths, who provide humanitarian aid to people illegally crossing the desert, have been charged for harbor and transport recently for taking three migrants to a medical facility. “It makes all of us who help undocumented people into aggravated felons.”

That bill also calls for the construction of 700 more miles of fence along the Mexican border, removes due process protection to asylum seekers and refugees, and subjects humanitarian workers to five years in prison for providing basic needs assistance to an undocumented immigrant. It does include a guest worker program, but persons must return home to apply, and there’s no access to permanent legal status.

Leo Anchondo, manager of the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, said that the McCain-Kennedy most closely matches the principles of targeted, enforceable and humane laws call for by the bishops. But there are at least five other less comprehensive bills being reviewed in the Senate Judiciary Committee and it’s not likely McCain- Kennedy will be the one to emerge to be debated on the Senate floor. He hopes the legislation debated, which could draw from various bills, will match McCain bill reforms as much as possible. He has not reviewed the Welcoming Immigrants to a Secure Homeland Act introduced Feb. 17, which, among many provisions, also offers a guest worker visa with access to legal permanent residency, and a pathway for illegal workers who’ve been here five years to work five years legally and then return to their homeland and apply for another visa.

“If you don’t do anything about future flows, root causes and the community living here and contributing to society, it falls short in addressing these serious concerns,” he said. The McCain bill “goes the extra mile in addressing every single one of those concerns.”

Catholic social teaching calls for policies and trade agreements that address the roots causes of poverty. The McCain-Kennedy bill encourages the U.S. government to work with countries sending workers here to develop their industries that employ unskilled workers to address the root causes of migration. Joan Neal, vice president for U.S. operations of Catholic Relief Services, spoke in Atlanta last fall and cited reasons for migration including the abolishment of trade barriers, an increase in Latin America of economic models that have undermined already limited social safety nets, and trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, that don’t properly address the negative impact on the poor and focus more on trade than internal economic development.

“For many people economic migration has become a necessity rather than a choice. … Although this is a global issue, it is an acute concern in Latin America as millions of people move in and outside the region to find viable work and even living conditions. At the same time migrants are increasingly being criminalized.”

Clearly it’s a contentious issue even among Catholics. John Keeley, a Catholic and communications director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which supports more restrictions, believes enforcement is key and that the nation’s “elite,” from bishops to editors, are out of touch with the negative effects of illegal immigration on ordinary Americans like gangs and overcrowded schools. He believes one major problem is that with “a labor sector that has become addicted to cheap foreign labor” the government has stopped penalizing businesses hiring them, reflected in a dramatic decrease in fines, and that undocumented workers would not come if there were not jobs waiting for them.

He said that the employee verification system established in 1996 is a “powerful enforcement tool” to verify eligibility of workers and that voluntary program should be made compulsory.

“We’ve seen an evisceration on enforcement of immigration law,” he said. “When you dry up the avalanche of jobs in the U.S., you eliminate the magnitude of illegal immigration.”

He also believes it’s a moral issue when companies are exploitive and will pay undocumented workers at their mercy $5 an hour to pick crops. He doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a job Americans don’t want, noting how they fill unattractive jobs such as city trash collectors because to compensate for the undesirability they are given good benefits packages.

“Do we sanction indentured servitude from abroad? We’ve been down that road and it’s called slavery,” he said. “The history of American agriculture is not that illegal aliens pick our agriculture, but that Americans did it when wages were fair.”

He believes legalizing the undocumented sets a bad precedent. “Amnesty is a bad idea because it rewards lawbreaking.”

Sister Joyce Ann Hertzig, OP, coordinator of Parish and Community Ministry, challenges Catholics in considering this issue to think of the common good and where money should be directed.

“We’ve gotten so individualistic that we are forgetting about the common good. We are one human family,” she said. “To what extent do we put money into (more border walls) instead of into what will be an actual solution? … The bishops are not calling for amnesty. They are saying our borders will be more safe if we know who we have.”

Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez, director of the archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, worries that with HR 4437 he too could be put at risk, as he works in reforming gang members at his church, San Felipe de Jesus Mission in Forest Park, and often invites them to Mass. He said most undocumented workers don’t hope for the privilege of citizenship but just to be allowed to live here and earn a living wage.

“They are just looking for an opportunity to work. They want to be honest and pay taxes,” he said. “They are very, very worried about what will happen in the future. … In the Catholic Church when we see injustice we need to proclaim the justice of the Gospel. This is our community. It’s wonderful what the bishops are doing.”

He’s also worried that if more restrictive laws are passed that the undocumented will become more nervous and vulnerable to being tricked and cheated by unscrupulous persons offering bad legal advice. He is now trying to find support for a pregnant single mother of three who was denied any health care to treat lupus because she can’t afford it and doesn’t qualify for public support.

“Many women are sick and are not being attended to in the hospitals,” continued the Colombian-born priest. “We shouldn’t talk about illegals, we need to talk about undocumented. … Jesus invites us to have compassion especially with people suffering, and the people suffering in this case are the Hispanic community. In the past it was the black community, and in the future I don’t know who it will be. Our work is to have compassion for our brothers and sisters.”

He led an inculturation retreat recently for priests where he spoke about the campaign and received a lot of support, and he hopes other clergy will also take the lead and offer ways to educate their congregations.

Joe Krygiel, archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Charities, encourages parishes to contact his office for resource kits and other educational materials or to arrange for a speaker on the issues. One powerful campaign video called “Dying to Live,” produced by the University of Notre Dame Hispanic Ministry, shows how families break up and migrants risk their lives crossing the deserts to improve their lives and that of those left behind. “This saga sounds very similar to the early history of this country, except the faces now are brown and not white.”

He also compared it to the immigration wave at the turn of the last century where immigrants struggled in sweatshops. And Krygiel pointed out that the church’s biblical experience with migration teaches all Catholics to empathize with migrants.

“Jesus himself was a migrant, born in a manger on a journey, he and his family fled to Egypt, and during his adult ministry ‘he had nowhere to lay his head.’ (Mt 8:20) We have been taught by Jesus to look for Him in the faces of migrants and to welcome the stranger.”