By Anna Alicia Chavez, JSRI Migration Specialist
The latest legislative buzz is the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP). This bill, drafted by Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and co-sponsored by 89 other representatives, has revived the immigration debate in Congress. The U.S. Bishops—as do many other proponents for immigration reform—applaud the efforts of Representative Gutierrez and are pleased that the bill does address many of the concerns they have. The acronym “CIR ASAP” captures the urgency for immigration reform. And indeed it is urgent that we act today for the sake of our nation’s welfare. In anticipation of a congressional debate early this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has launched a few initiatives to urge all U.S. Catholics to work in unison to bring about comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible in 2010.
Center stage of any debate on comprehensive immigration reform is the question of what to do with the 12 million undocumented immigrants presently living in U.S. society. These immigrants are among the most vulnerable members of our society. They are at risk of the ill treatment and abuses of a society faced with an ever-growing preoccupation with its present political, economical, social, and cultural state of well being. Today the undocumented immigrant is scapegoated as a root cause of the nation’s ills and in need of being disposed of. The ethos in regard to the “illegal” immigrant is hostile and brutal. Over the past decade the legal system has served to criminalize the immigrant and create an underclass of people living in the shadows of our society. As people of faith, it is imperative that we side with the most vulnerable members of our society.
Realistically, the large majority of undocumented immigrants are people of good will. They are honest, hardworking persons with only the best intentions. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they migrate in search of work to sustain their families. Others migrate to reunite with family members who are already living in the U.S. Many enter the country unauthorized, while others enter legally with temporary visas, but overstay their visas. The present visa system has not been updated to take into account the effects of globalization; and, consequently, it is virtually impossible for these immigrants to enter the country legally. Their unauthorized entry is a civil offense and not a criminal one. The bishops call for comprehensive immigration reform that will create a legal path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.
Under the current law immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are considered a priority for a family based visa. However, there is a huge backlog for these visas that typically results in five to 20 years of waiting. For example, the applications being reviewed in the 2008 year were applications that had been filed in 1992. The bishops call for comprehensive immigration reform that will reunite the family by reducing the pending backlog and make more visas available for family reunification purposes.
Although the most recent data show a significant drop in the flow of undocumented migration into the U.S. (largely due to the economic recession), usual migration flows in previous years have yielded an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants per year. Kevin Appleby from the USCCB states that as many as 90 percent of these immigrants find employment within the first six months of their arrival. Yet the number of visas available to these low skilled workers is a mere 1 percent. Advocates in favor of immigration reform stress the importance of having a visa system that is in line with this reality.
The push and pull factors of migration are simple: jobs, jobs, and jobs! The majority of undocumented immigrants in the world leave their home country because there simply are no jobs available. They migrate to developed countries like the U.S. because there are jobs available. They are hungry and, thus, willing to endure great tribulation to secure work to feed their families and themselves. As many as 4000 migrants have died along the journey to the U.S. Due to their unauthorized status, undocumented immigrants are also at risk of being exploited by greedy employers. The bishops call for comprehensive immigration reform that will create legal and safe avenues for migrants to come here to work.
In the past decade, and most significantly since the failed immigration reform in Congress in 2007, the anti-immigration sentiment has gripped the nation. The political system has little tolerance for immigrants. They have been subject to the most horrendous and inhumane laws and policies passed by State legislatures across the nation. These laws and policies are in violation of the most basic human rights. A common occurrence in recent years has been workplace and home raids where hundreds of immigrants have been rounded up like common criminals and held in detention for months without charges. There are secret hearings and incidents of racial profiling. The list of incidents is long and most disheartening when we consider that these horrendous acts of violence against thousands of innocent people are happening right here in the United States of America. As the bishops indicate, “These laws and policies, including detention, signal a sea change in our government’s policies and attitudes towards immigrants. We are a nation with a long, rich tradition of welcoming newcomers. Government policies that unfairly and inappropriately confuse immigration with terrorism do not make us safer, tarnish our heritage, and damage our standing abroad.” The bishops call for comprehensive immigration reform that will restore due process for all.
The U.S. bishops stress the first and foremost principle of Catholic Social Teaching on migration is the right not to migrate. All peoples should be able to stay in their native country and be able to find work at home to live in dignity and support their families. “Migration should be driven by choice, not by necessity” (Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the International Policy Committee, USCCB News Release on January 6, 2010). There are powerful forces in the global economy that have displaced workers and forced them out of their homeland to find work elsewhere. One example is the displacement of thousands of Mexican farmers as a result of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada. The agreement allowed U.S. farmers to export their products without paying high tariffs. Consequently, in Mexico U.S. corn sold for less than the total cost of growing corn in Mexico. As a result many farmers lost their livelihood and were left with little to no other option but to migrate North. When making trade agreements with developing countries, developed countries have the responsibility to level the playing field so that foreign trade can benefit all parties involved. The bishops call for comprehensive immigration reform that includes policy to address the root causes of migration.
The CIR ASAP of 2009 does include many aspects of the bishops’ principles for comprehensive reform. This bill is no doubt a great first step toward immigration reform in 2010. Catholics and all people of good will are encouraged to join in the efforts to ensure the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes the overriding principles laid out by the bishops. Among the initiatives launched this month by USCCB is a nationwide postcard campaign. The goal is to collect at least 1.5 million postcards signed by Catholics across the nation and deliver a loud message to Congress in support of comprehensive immigration reform NOW.
In the next two months faith communities across the nation will be mobilized to take action on behalf of the thousands of immigrant families who suffer tremendously at the hand of an unjust and inhumane immigration system. If you would like to sign the postcards and send them via the internet to members of congress visit the Justice for Immigrants website. On this site you find many other resources to help educate others on immigration issues.
Remember to let everyone know we want Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform NOW!!!!
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