By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 26, 2007
Chris West of Catholic Relief Services spoke April 13 to about 140 parish advocates at a local conference on the national Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, seeking to highlight the issue as Congress renews debate over how to address the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.
In this session of Congress, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its “Justice for Immigrants” program is generally supporting H.R. Bill 1645, known as the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy), West told attendees at the Friday evening event, held at Holy Cross Church.
West is director of field operations in the Justice for Immigrants campaign and is a community organizer for CRS, one of several national Catholic organizations partnering with the USCCB. He spoke on the legislative outlook for the bill, saying that any immigration legislation would need to pass both chambers of Congress by the August recess. Then a joint House-Senate committee could work out a compromise bill in the fall.
STRIVE is currently the only immigration measure in the House, and it or another bill is expected to be voted on this summer. Senators are currently meeting about immigration reform, and a similar bill may pass the Senate by the end of May.
“We have … a narrow opportunity to get our Congress to do anything. … Our legislative fight is going to be in the next month and a half,” West said.
The House bill includes broad legalization of the undocumented, while requiring six years of work, fines of $2,000 plus application fees, payment of back taxes, English language and civics requirements, and a “legal re-entry requirement.” The bill includes a temporary worker program with a path to citizenship, focuses on family-based immigration reform and on backlog reduction, and doubles the allotted number of employment-based green cards. It would increase border patrol agents and enforcement officers and implement tamper-resistant immigration documents and an electronic employment verification system before any temporary worker program or legalization provisions could be adjudicated. It also requires the U.S. Secretary of State to assist the Mexican government to develop economic opportunities and jobs in Mexico to discourage emigration.
West challenged those at the meeting to be visible advocates in their parishes and communities and to contact the media and Georgia senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isaacson, who he said have opposed comprehensive immigration reform and have said they don’t hear from constituents who favor this type of reform.
Advocates must also work to educate people in the pews, he said, asserting that many Americans don’t realize how important immigrants are to the growing U.S. economy.
A Pew Hispanic Center study on immigration estimates that an average of 400,000 to 485,000 Mexican migrants have illegally entered the United States annually since 1990. “These are jobs people fill,” West said.
Despite the draw of American jobs, only 5,000 permanent visas are available annually for low-skilled workers and only 66,000 can enter annually as seasonal non-agricultural workers.
West said that Common Ground is one good program to bring people together in divided parishes to talk about this controversial issue, on which many Catholics oppose the church’s position.
“We need to take time to heal the church, to bring people together for dialogue. We are putting resources up on the Web site about how you bring people together to have controversial discussions in your parish,” he said. “We are one church. … We have to engage in relationship with people, especially those who disagree with us.”
The USCCB campaign has a comprehensive Web site filled with statistics, and the National Immigration Forum has been doing “phenomenal work on this issue, great research.”
“There comes a time when we have to decide, do we be prophetic or do we be quiet? Do we stand up in solidarity with people who need us or do we be quiet?” West asked. “We need to begin having that dialogue. … Priests cannot do it alone. We need the laity involved in this.”
If legislation is not passed this session, the campaign will continue, West said.
“It’s not just Congress. It’s a huge battle for the hearts and minds of this country. Immigrants are not a threat. They are a blessing.”
In case reform legislation passes, West advised the undocumented to save documents that prove their identity and history of employment and good moral character. They must never use fraudulent Social Security numbers or other false identity documents. Falsely stating one is a U.S. citizen, whether applying to get a driver’s license or for student financial aid, automatically bars one from ever obtaining citizenship. Anyone who has been arrested before needs to seek legal advice before filling out any application.
Sue Colussy, Catholic Charities Immigration Services director, advised in a question-and-answer session that “it will always be a problem with people who use false documents, and it will come back. … You face very serious issues down the road when you make false statements.”
Myths About Immigration
West also offered attendees statistics supporting comprehensive reform as well as the Catholic moral perspective on the issues through the lens of CRS, which provides relief and development work in 99 countries around the world. The Bible has over 300 references on how to treat migrants.
“When we look at issues, we look at it from a global point of view, from a one Catholic Church point of view, and we are one human family.”
He said the “enforcement first” approach with regard to border security hasn’t worked, stating that from 1986 to 1998 the budget at the border has increased six-fold and the number of agents on the Southwest border doubled to 8,500. Instead of decreasing illegal immigration, the undocumented population doubled in that time frame to 8 million.
Over 2,000 people, as they cross through Arizona’s Sonora Desert, have died since 1998, according to the humanitarian group No More Deaths. Groups leave water at stations to help illegal aliens survive the crossing, and West noted that even cities along the border give them financial support because it’s cheaper to help those crossing illegally live than hire more coroners.
Regarding the root causes of poverty, he said that U.S. development assistance in Latin and Central America has been falling since the 1980s. He reasoned that conflict arises in the free trade model when goods can flow freely across borders while labor can’t, and reported that following the North American Free Trade Agreement some 1 million Mexican corn farmers lost their small farms, unable to compete with American farmers who grow corn with subsidy protection. Exacerbating the problem, the Mexican government failed to provide needed social support services, and the factories on the border where previously the poor could find work relocated to China.
“There are all sorts of compounding problems,” he said. “It’s in our country’s interest to have stable countries” as neighbors.
The campaign reports from the U.S. Department of Labor that there will be a shortage of 2 million workers in a range of low-skilled jobs by 2010 and that the number of native-born and naturalized workers in unskilled categories is shrinking due to lower fertility rates and higher education levels.
“We have more people retiring than workers replacing them. It’s not hard to figure out we need to find workers from somewhere else.”
One estimate by the Friends Committee on National Legislation is that immigrants earn about $240 billion a year, pay about $90 billion in taxes and use about $5 billion in public benefits, and 70 percent arrive at prime working age. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute reported that the undocumented in Georgia contribute up to $252 million a year in taxes while in 2005 the federal government paid $67 million and the state paid $44 million in medical services to the undocumented.
“Immigrants come here to work, to reunite with family members. … Undocumented folks can’t get welfare,” West said.
He cited an open letter to Congress last June by 500 leading economists, including five Nobel laureates, in support of immigration. It stated that the economy creates as many jobs as there are workers willing to work as long as markets remain free, flexible and open to all workers on an equal basis.
“While a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices. As with trade in goods and services, the gains from immigration outweigh the losses. The effect of all immigration on low-skilled workers is very likely positive as many immigrants bring skills, capital and entrepreneurship to the American economy,” stated one paragraph.
Undocumented immigrants do not have Social Security numbers, but the Internal Revenue Service allows them to file taxes by assigning applicants individual taxpayer identification numbers. The numbers were introduced in 1996 to encourage non-citizens, who have United States income, including foreign investors, to file returns. It is generally accepted that most of the 11 million numbers issued since then have gone to illegal immigrants.
The church opposes the White House’s most recent reform proposition which, among various elements, calls for a $10,000 fine in addition to paying $3,500 every three years until eligible for a green card. As violation of immigration law is a civil law infraction, the church’s position is that the fine is disproportionate to the crime.
“One of the arguments we hear a lot is ‘no amnesty,’” West said. “People need to make restitution for breaking the law, but it needs to be equivalent to what wrong is done.”
Church’s Historical Perspective On Immigration
The U.S. Catholic Church has a longstanding history of serving immigrants and refugees—regardless of religion or ethnicity. The USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services office is one of the primary organizations partnering with the government to resettle refugees.
Through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network of over 150 immigration programs, low-cost, Catholic-sponsored legal clinics around the country, including Atlanta’s award-winning Catholic Charities clinic, help immigrants navigate complex laws.
West said that while some think immigration is now a much bigger issue than in the past, it has always been a controversial subject, quoting Benjamin Franklin’s criticism of German immigrants: “Why should we suffer outsiders who prefer ethnic enclaves?”
In the early 20th century immigrants were about 15 percent of the population, and now they are 11.5 percent. Immigrant groups that have historically been discriminated against included Germans from 1840-1920, Eastern Europeans and the Irish, with the brunt of anti-immigrant backlash often being against Catholics. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Expulsion Act. Later it passed a literacy test for citizenship in 1917 and exempted Mexicans because they were important to the economy, but then 400,000 were deported during the Depression.
Using images to make his points, he showed a cartoon of the message below the Lady Liberty statue reading “give me your tired, your poor …” with an asterisk stating “offer may vary.”
The church, which Catholic Charities USA reported in 1910 was 75 percent immigrant with the majority in poverty, “has a tremendous history of standing with the immigrant. The church cares about the dignity of the human person and has been at the forefront of this fight.”
Fernando Muñoz, a Cuban-American member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, commented on the importance of judiciously choosing tactics in advocating for reform. He is concerned that after the massive immigration rallies last spring where some brought Mexican flags and sang the national anthem in Spanish that public attitude shifted away from respecting Hispanics as hard-working and family-oriented people, to that of being disloyal and drainers of public benefits.
Annette Diaz of San Felipe de Jesus Mission in Forest Park is a catechist and the coordinator of the south metro pastoral plan for Hispanics. She came to see how she might support the archdiocese in the campaign, as she knows many good people who are undocumented immigrants and own houses and have businesses and children born here. She doesn’t believe S.B. 529, Georgia’s recently passed immigration law, is going to deter the inexorable influx of migrants to Georgia.
But for those already here “everyone is afraid,” she said. “They don’t understand the law, where to go. We’re trying to learn more of what is there to help them out.”
Susan Stevenot Sullivan, director of parish and social justice ministries for Catholic Charities, said the Holy Cross meeting was a way to provide the latest information and to gather parish leaders of immigrant communities to create a diocesan immigration network through which they can disseminate future news on immigration. She was pleased that about 75 people signed on to be contacts in their parishes, as this was the first step of an initiative that they will build on over the next few years. There are also parish information kits that can be ordered through the Web site.
“Given the difficulties that every wave of immigrants has faced, this is a problem that is not going to go away next month or year. Whatever happens with the federal government, with the climate in Georgia, these challenges will go on for a while in Georgia and there is a lot of suffering involved. This is something we need to pray and work on, both recent immigrants and descendents of immigrants,” she said. “It’s the whole idea of how do we distribute, how do we have good communication about this, not only communicating information about the important things people should know (but also) communication about what is happening to people. Part of being a responsible community is listening to people, and responding responsibly and prayerfully together.”
She believes that Catholics must see the issue through the lens of justice and solidarity, as reflected in the event theme “Travelers Together: One Creator, One Family, One Journey.”
This theme “comes from both the Old and New Testament and Paul’s proclamation,” Sullivan said. “We are many parts and one body, and whatever happens to one part affects the whole body. We are all in this together, and sometimes that’s not a message that is being heard clearly.”
For more information call Colleen Smith at (404) 885-7472 or visit www.justiceforimmigrants.org.