Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Catholic Women Hear Pleas For Immigration Reform

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2005

The lack of visas for low-skilled workers desperate for a dignified life and jobs to survive were reasons cited for needed immigration reform during a workshop on immigration held as part of the National Council of Catholic Women’s 52nd biennial convention for over 1,200 women at the Hilton Atlanta Hotel.

The Sept. 17 workshop addressed reasons why the United States needs to reform its immigration system while continuing to address the root causes of poverty internationally that drive so many to risk their lives and emigrate.

Speakers challenged these women from a church and nation built on immigration to educate themselves and their dioceses across America on these pressing issues through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants Campaign launched in May.

Sue Colussy, director of the low-cost legal clinic for immigrants in Atlanta run by Catholic Social Services, described the scenario she often faces in visa requests, such as when she receives a call asking, “Can you get my nanny a visa?”

“The answer is somewhere between no and probably not,” she said. “There are almost no visas for people with limited or no skills.”

And with an estimated 8-12 million undocumented workers now living in the United States and Georgia’s Hispanic immigrant population burgeoning to nearly 600,000 she sees an endless stream of laborers desperate to get visas. Colussy provided an “Immigration 101” overview covering everything from the A to Z list of types of visas—and what actually is a visa—to who handles immigration these days and the years-long waiting period for processing family reunification requests.

Speaker Joan Neal, Catholic Relief Services’ vice president for U.S. operations, provides leadership in CRS efforts to educate and engage American Catholics in their work for global social justice and solidarity to reduce the need for migration. Leo Anchondo, the U.S. bishops’ national campaign manager for the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, spoke on the overall mission of the campaign, which endorses the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005.

Neal spoke about CRS work in relief, development and social justice in 99 countries around the world to address the root causes of poverty and to work for social justice. She reviewed Catholic social teaching that persons have a right to migrate in order to provide for themselves and their families and to live with dignity, but also of the right of sovereign nations to control their borders for protection. In the world today there are some 150 million international migrants, refugees and trafficked people living outside of their country of origin; 25 million, who have much less protection, are displaced in their own countries, largely in Africa.

“People throughout history have left their place of origin to make better lives, to flee persecution or as forced labor,” Neal said. “In the last few decades major social and economic changes have caused a greater movement than we’ve ever seen before. Accompanying that phenomenon has been a growing international resistance to receiving migrants, a situation that has led to an increase in human rights abuses.”

And there are a conservatively estimated 700,000 to 2 million people being trafficked annually for sex or forced labor, largely women and children.

“Human trafficking is a $10 billion growth industry in the world … This phenomenon has exploded on the scene in recent years. Significant portions of victims of trafficking began as migrants or refugees or internally displaced people. Because they are people who are vulnerable with few legal alternatives they are easy targets,” she said.

She noted that three-fourths of the migrants to this country are Latino, and the main reason for Latin American migration is the impact of a global economy.

“For many people economic migration has become a necessity rather than a choice. All around the world rapid economic changes have eliminated alternatives for financial survival. 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 becoming criminalized.”

In Latin America there has been an increase in economic models that have undermined already limited social safety nets and trade agreements, such as the recently passed 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, she asserted.

“It is clearly recognized, of course, that trade and investment have the potential to increase income and increase job opportunities. However, trade rules and agreements to date have disproportionately benefited some nations and some sectors within nations and devastated others,” Neal said.

She said that abolishing trade barriers leaves smaller farmers at the mercy of subsidized American agro-business, and that hundreds of thousands of farmers in Mexico have been hurt by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has driven corn prices below the cost of production through the influx of cheap corn imports from the United States. Making matters worse, the Mexican government has cut farmer subsidy programs.

“Families are giving up, abandoning farms and migrating north. The church has taken a position that trade rules and agreements need to be fair and make a priority the reduction of poverty and the protection of those who are most vulnerable, such as small farmers, and that those rules should allow countries to protect small producers from unfair competition through protective measures.”

She also noted that now all too often migrants must choose between life and death, as there has been a 1,000 percent increase between 1994 and 2001 in the number of deaths along the Arizona border, and over 3,000 have died trying to enter from Mexico since 1994.

“Catholic teaching has a long and rich tradition in defending the right to migrate. But Catholic teaching also states that the root causes of poverty, injustice, religious intolerance and violence must be addressed so that migrants can remain in their homelands and support their families.”

She highlighted a few CRS programs to guarantee producers a living wage such as the Fair Trade Coffee Project, which helps struggling farmers who have not benefited from the specialty coffee boom to survive, and its Work of Human Hands Program which sells crafts made by developing world artisans. The bishops’ conference also has the Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty.

“You can help our brothers and sisters remain in their own homelands and live in safety and dignity. The Gospel calls us to reach out in love and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need,” she concluded. “We are all members of one human family, of God’s family, and maybe it’s time for us to live that way.”

In her talk, Colussy explained that a nonimmigrant visa is a permit to enter the country temporarily and that an immigrant visa for permanent stay leads to legal permanent residency. People immigrate to the United States lawfully through family-sponsored immigration, employment-based immigration, with refugee status, asylum grants or diversity lottery visas. Immigration issues are handled by the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol; and the State Department. Categories for temporary visas include students, employees of an international organization, temporary workers, those with extraordinary merit and ability, or those who are victims of trafficking. “There’s even an S (visa) for snitch,” she said.

Regarding the length of processing time for family reunification cases, Mexican permanent residents living legally in this country who filed for a spouse in 1997 are still waiting, as are Mexican citizens who filed for a sibling in 1993.

“This is one of the problems new laws are going to address, this incredible backlog of family reunifications,” Colussy said.

Those filing an asylum claim must, among other requirements, prove their identity and nationality, and demonstrate past persecution or fear of future persecution on account of various factors in their homeland.

“You have to prove identity, and that can be a problem if you’ve lost documents. The asylum process is like a jigsaw puzzle. The number of people out there doing asylum work is not what it needs to be,” Colussy explained, adding that those arriving in the United States claiming asylum at the airport will be “locked up” in a detention center until they can prove their case.

Undocumented persons can apply to legalize their status if they have lived here for 10 years, can prove they are persons of good character, and can show extraordinary hardship to their citizen or legal permanent spouse or child if they leave. But proving extraordinary hardship “means you have a child who needs a heart transplant. It’s that high a burden in order to stay here.”

“We spend a lot of time saying to people, ‘I am really sorry. There is nothing I can do to help you,’” said the attorney. “That’s why we really need immigration reform.”

Anchondo spoke of the USCCB Justice for Immigrants Campaign and advocacy for the “8-12 million people living in the shadows every day having fear of being removed from loved ones and sent back to their countries of origin.” Regarding the length of waiting period for family reunification he said, “To think somebody is going to be separated from family members for 20 years is just not realistic. It’s not going to happen. These policies have made people come to the decision to come here illegally … These policies have led to more than 2,000 dying in the last five years that we can account for.”

The USCCB in the 2003 document “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” outlines a number of principles needed for comprehensive immigration reform including addressing the root causes of migration and a broad-based legalization proposal.

The campaign is sponsored by over 20 Catholic institutions including the U.S. Jesuit Conference, NCCW, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Catholic Health Association and the U.S. Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs. One primary focus is endorsement of the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, which has been introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives. It gives undocumented persons who have worked in the United States the opportunity to obtain a temporary visa to work legally. After six years they can petition for permanent residency and, if they choose, pursue citizenship five years later. It also exempts immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from the annual 480,000 cap on family visas and increases the percentage of visas allowed per country each year from 7 to 10 percent of applications filed. The proposed temporary worker program permits workers from abroad to apply for a temporary visa to work here, provided they possess a job offer from an employer. Employers are required to provide these workers the same wages, benefits and worker protection as U.S. workers and are penalized for trying to hire undocumented workers.

The Web site addresses many myths about immigration with topics ranging from national security to job loss for Americans. For one example regarding the belief that immigrants come to take welfare, it states with references to studies that the immigrant labor force participation is consistently higher than native-born, and the ratio between immigrant use of public benefits and the amount of taxes they pay is consistently favorable to the United States.

Anchondo said the pending bill “includes most of the principles outlined by the bishops and they have formally endorsed that bill.”

He hopes that women in attendance will bring information back to their dioceses, as many, including Catholics, have a negative perception of immigration. Campaign leaders hope that bishops and other leaders will become involved in developing a local campaign. Persons can also become active through the Web site by writing to their legislators.

“Start re-educating yourself about Catholic social teaching and immigration,” he encouraged attendees. The campaign manager concluded quoting from Pope John Paul II, a champion of immigrant rights, “Be not afraid!”

Joan Lucas, an English as a second language instructor and member of Holy Family Church, Marietta, appreciated the talk on immigration and believes that there needs to be a lot more education on these issues and Catholic social teaching. People question how to handle immigration when “we can’t take care of our own in places like schools and with health issues,” she said. “They need to be re-educated to know that all our relatives at one time were immigrants and they came to make a better life for our children, and that’s what these people are doing.”

Lucas believes it’s “wonderful we’re addressing more” international issues at the NCCW through programs such as the Water for Life outreach aiding women and children that, in partnership with CRS, reduces disease, improves agricultural viability, and offers emergency services after natural disasters around the world. Other programs with CRS address nutritional and medical support, education, micro-business development and help for refugees.

“It’s a good step in the right direction with these international issues we have. I’d hope our priests and bishops would get behind a lot of these programs with these women. When you look at the broad spectrum of it, women do a lot of good. They’re the backbone of the parish,” she said. “I think it was a very successful convention.”

Attendee Merikay Jost, organizer for legislative concerns for the Idaho Council of Catholic Women, is very involved in advocating for some of the most abused immigrants. She is educating Catholics around her state on the issue of human trafficking, after attending a Baltimore conference on the subject last year. Since then she’s met with legislators of both parties in Idaho and challenged them to take action, and “now I have a bipartisan committee writing a law.” She’s speaking on the issue using government and USCCB materials where she tells people how this happens, what signs to look for that a person is enslaved, and who to contact. Ordinary people are “going to be the ones to find the victims,” she said. She met at the NCCW meeting with about 15 other women to share ideas and brainstorm.

“I took it not only as a challenge but as an obligation because I used funds to attend (the Baltimore conference). I needed to take it back into the community and implement what I had learned,” she said. “You’d be absolutely shocked by all the violence against women.”

Jost was glad to learn more about immigration reform.

“The Catholic community needs to understand that how they view immigration reforms is in direct relationship to how they practice their religion. If you are a good Catholic you are in support of every person,” she said. “We have got a large population of Mexicans and there’s misinformation out there on their contributions to our society. I’m so happy the USCCB has taken a stand, which gives us guidance and will help us work within communities better. It’s important to hear this side of the story.”

For information on the USCCB Justice for Immigrants Campaign visit