As summer winds down and the congressional August recess dwindles, the efforts of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other advocates of immigration reform are still at a high level.
“We’re in a lull, but it’s an important lull,” said Kevin Appleby, the USCCB’s point man on immigration. “We’re trying to rev up support in the dioceses and districts to make sure that [congressional] representatives know they’ve got support for this….. What happens from the first of August to the ninth of September will help determine the final outcome of what happens in Congress. If all goes well, they’ll pass some measures in October, put them together and conference them with the Senate and we’ll have a fairly good bill by the end of the year.”
“Over the August recess we’re encouraging people to get the message out to their representatives that we need to fix our broken immigration system,” said Kim Daniels, spokeswoman for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’re called to help our brothers and sisters who are living in the shadows, and we want to take that message to our representatives so that we can pass immigration reform.”
Most observers consider the bipartisan immigration reform bill the US Senate passed in June to have little chance of being introduced in the House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is insisting that any immigration bill brought to the floor of the House have the support of a majority of the Republican conference. But a number of bills have been introduced in the House to reform various aspects of immigration policy, including one that would provide 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents, 350 miles of fence, and billions of dollars for security.
Another is the Kids Act, introduced by Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would provide a path to legalization for children who were brought here as infants by parents who entered the country without proper authorization.
President Barack Obama has been pushing for immigration reform to address the problem of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and many Republicans are trying to balance a need to gain support from the growing Hispanic-American demographic with the need to address the concerns of more conservative constituents, many of whom oppose giving a break to immigrants who “jumped the line” ahead of those who went through the proper channels to live and work here legally.
The bishops’ conference also is calling for research into the reasons why people decide to come to this country—and find ways to address the problems that spur them to leave their own country. That’s a concern of Christopher M. Gray, a senior research analyst at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, as well.
“If we let the most entrepreneurial citizens leave Mexico or Central America, how will these countries ever become prosperous?” he said in an interview. “It would take the pressure off the corrupt ruling oligarchies of Mexico to reform.”
Gray asserts that undocumented immigrants are doing well here in general, are not being denied basic services and medical care, and their children born in the United States have the full benefits of citizenship.
“We ought to just keep things the way they are and speed up the process of [helping] the 2-3 million resident aliens who have their green cards and did things right and operated according to the system,” he said.
But a number of Catholic dioceses and parishes will be promoting immigration policy reform on or around the weekend of Sept. 8, the New York Times reported Aug. 21. Catholics attending Mass at that time may be hearing homilies on immigration, and Catholics in some cities may be participating in prayerful marches with members of other faith groups.
“There’s going to have to be a point, I think, where Boehner’s going to have to allow an up-and-down vote on something that hopefully would include a path to citizenship,” the USCCB’s Appleby said. “So the scenario where they pass three or four different bills and conference them with the Senate, that would happen on a conference committee report at the end of the year. Or they could do it informally. They might not even have to appoint conferees; they could just adopt a Senate amendment…the Senate adopts the House amendment they agree to, and then they pass the final bills again and give them to the president.”
That scenario might prove to be better than the original Senate bill, which the USCCB sees as somewhat problematic anyway. Appleby said that it contained some income and work requirements that would “cut some people out,” for example, and the “cutoff date” for eligible applicants would have been the end of 2011, which would leave out people who immigrated after that time, he said.
He said that a House border-security bill and an employment verification bill will do well. “A big bugaboo is something called the SAFE Act” [Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement], which “gives local and state police immigration enforcement authority, and makes undocumented presence a criminal offense,” Appleby said.
But, “if we keep pressure on this, we’ll have a product by the end of the year that bishops can support,” he predicted.
A “broken” system
According to Daniels, the conference has worked for various reforms, including an earned path to citizenship, family reunification, protection of the integrity of US borders, protecting due process for immigrants and their families, and addressing the root causes of unauthorized immigration.
Asked why the conference considers current immigration law “broken,” she commented, “Because our parishes and charitable groups help immigrants every day around the country, we see the human face of our broken system. We see migrants dying in the dessert, we see mothers and fathers separated from their children, we see millions of our brothers and sisters forced to live in the shadows, vulnerable to exploitation. This is a profound humanitarian problem.”
She noted that Pope Francis has been “calling us to reach out and show mercy to those on the margins of society, and here in our country, undocumented immigrants are on those margins.”
In July, the Pope visited the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a way-station for immigrants from Africa to Europe, where he lamented that many people in the world have “lost the sense of fraternal responsibility.”
“The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference,” Francis said during Mass.
Julia Young, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America who specializes in the history of immigration, said that in the United States, the long wait for legal papers and “onerous” visa application process an immigrant must endure does not comport with the reality of the economic needs of the country.
“Many people have to wait years and years to be considered to come in legally,” she said. “Yet there are American companies that are recruiting to bring Mexican immigrants to the US. There are openings in agriculture and service that seem to be particularly open to immigrants from Mexico, yet the possibilities for them to come in legally are very limited. They have to show they have a certain income, fill out paperwork that’s extensive, go and be interviewed at the US Embassy. If someone is desperate for a job and knows there is a job waiting for him in the United States and yet he has to wait five years for approval or try to cross the border, you can see why someone might make that choice.”
The solution? “At least establish some kind of temporary worker situation that would allow people to come legally if they had jobs,” she suggested.
The Republican National Committee favors a bill that provides renewable work permits for immigrants who are in the country illegally. At its summer meeting in Boston earlier this month, the RNC urged Congress to pass immigration reform, but the organization warns that a path to citizenship would turn out to be “amnesty.” It also called for construction of a double fence on the border.
Sister Mary Ellen Burns, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Herat of Jesus, directs Apostle Immigrant Services at St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, Conn. She’s been involved in scores of cases where immigrants run up against the current system, often with tragic results. She spoke recently of Daniela and Thomas (not their real names), who entered the US by crossing the Mexican border, met and married here, and are raising three US citizen children. “They own their own home, work steadily, have no criminal history, are active members of their church, and are studying English,” she said. But “they have no way to adjust their status to become legal residents of the US.”
Then there’s Jean-Pierre, who was brought to the US by his mother when he was six. “His mother obtained legal status, but never submitted a petition for him,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Then, when he was 17, she died. He is too old now to qualify for ‘deferred action for childhood arrivals’ and he has no other way to obtain legal residence at this time.”
Young sees plenty of similarities with as well as differences from previous waves of immigration from various parts of the world. Americans, she said, “have a sense that there’s a native culture we should preserve. Immigration is seen as threat to the indigenous or dominant culture. Hispanic migration has changed and is changing American culture. Every new wave of immigrants has caused fear and resentment and concern among certain sectors of American society. I show students political cartoons about the Irish, Chinese, Italians, and Jews that were published all over the place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: [the idea was that] these people are coming and will ruin the country. Especially among Italians there was a lot of concern about people not learning the language. All those sentiments are being repeated now.”
Concern about the language of immigrants and the apparently increasing bilingualism of the United States, scholars say, is largely unnecessary. Yes, there is currently a large immigrant population that is Spanish-speaking, but by the second generation, said Notre Dame professor Timothy Matovina, executive director of the university’s Institute for Latino Studies, “the problem is not that they’re demanding that everyone speak Spanish; often the problem is that they can’t talk to their parents very well,” because the children of immigrants adapt very quickly to American culture and the English language.
“There are tremendous difficulties when a 12-year-old has to basically translate for the father or mother to negotiate the sale of a car or home or some other legal or economic matter,” said Matovina, author of Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton, 2012). “The 12-year-old in a certain sense begins to disrespect his parents because they can’t do the normal adult activities on their own and the 12-year-old has to do them. But if they go to American schools, they meet with peers, they watch television, they listen to music, English is all but inevitable. The notion that they retain Spanish for generations is just poppycock. … By the third generation 90 percent and more are English dominant and large number of those are monolingual English. Their Spanish is a few catchphrases here and there.”
The perception that Hispanic immigrants refuse to learn English stems from the fact that immigration from Latin America has been pretty much continuous since the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Matovina said. The children and grandchildren of immigrants grow up speaking English, but new waves keep coming, he said. That was not the case with other groups in the past.
“Most of the great waves from Germany and Italy lasted a half century or so, sometimes a little longer than that,” Matovina said. “When there was that anti-immigration legislation of the 1920s…the one that cut off European immigration, basically you didn’t have any new reinforcements coming. The Italian immigration is the best illustrator. There were hundreds of thousands of Italians coming, cut down to a trickle in a matter of a few years because it’s easier to defend an ocean than it is…well, it’s not even a river in the southwest in most places…. There was a tremendous curtailment of European immigration. Therefore the ones who just arrived had children and grandchildren, and within a few generations it wasn’t just families but entire Italian communities where Italian was now a dead language or a language [that] only a few of the older people spoke.”
Contrary to popular belief, immigrants want to learn English and adapt to American culture, Matovina says.
“Latinos are everywhere, working in chicken farms in the southeast, in Oklahoma City, in Montana,” he explained. “The more [the immigrant population] disperses, the more the powers of American assimilation take effect on the population. Most Latinos don’t want to be separatist. It’s not economically advantageous…. If you want to advance in business, you have to accommodate yourself to the wider culture. … In fact it’s often Latinos themselves who are the most vociferous about the need to learn English and Americanize.”
Young also sees this, not only from an academic perspective but from personal experience.
“I’ve taught English as a Second Language in DC and found that first-generation people are so anxious to learn English,” she said.
But for the USCCB and others, including Young, the issues surrounding immigration come down to a matter of human dignity. Said Daniels, “We’re an immigrant Church. Answering the Gospel call to welcome the stranger has been essential to our mission in America. We believe immigrants bring profound gifts to our nation that we should welcome and treasure.”