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Immigration Reform Bungled


Work in Catholic Teaching
Better Border Enforcement
Catholic Teaching at Odds

The immigration reform bill died in the U.S. Senate June 7 after it failed a second test vote to limit debate. That comprehensive measure tied together tighter border security with a “guest worker” program and offered legal status and a chance for citizenship to the estimated 12 and a half million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

What was the sticking point? The program sounded too much like amnesty, as if rewarding those who have violated our law by entering this country illegally. Amnesty was tried in 1986, but the other promise of that law—better border enforcement—never materialized.

Why do so many people risk their lives to enter the United States, split up their families and work without benefits for what most of us would consider low wages? They endure these for what they hope will be a better life and jobs.

On this Labor Day, we need to consider jobs in light of the immigration bill debacle.


Work in Catholic Teaching

“Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation,” say the U.S. bishops in Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions (1998).

The Bible starts by describing the work of creation. We are created in the image of this “worker God.”

In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Resource Manual on Catholic Social Teaching, the print companion to a USCCB video, contains an essay that summarizes work’s threefold moral significance in Catholic social teaching: “Work is the major arena for self-expression and self-realization. Work is the ordinary way to provide for ourselves and our families. Work is a principal means of contributing to the wider community and the common good. Pope John Paul II declared work the ‘key’ to the social question in his encyclical letter On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), #10-11.”

But what if that work is just over the U.S. border?

Better Border Enforcement

Especially in the wake of 9/11, a country has a right—an obligation even—to control its borders.

Most Republican senators opposed the immigration reform bill and demanded that the Bush administration, which had supported the bill, redouble its enforcement efforts against illegal immigration.

But Congress’s failure to pass any bill on this measure means that Homeland Security feels it cannot control our borders, argues frustrated Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

The bill’s demise means no mandatory employer verification system to weed out unauthorized workers; no increased penalties for ID counterfeiters or rogue employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants; no tamper-proof driver’s licenses; and no immediate $4.4 billion to beef up border security.

Still, the Border Patrol has already been authorized to swell to 18,000 agents, build 370 miles of fencing, create a “virtual” fence of electronic surveillance and conduct more worksite-enforcement raids.

Catholic Teaching at Odds

Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon, called a June 12 Immigration and Naturalization Service raid on a produce plant there “an affront to a nation whose tradition has always welcomed the stranger in search of the security and livelihood which he cannot find in the country of his origin.”

The archbishop asked Catholic parishes and individuals to offer assistance and support to families affected by this raid.

Boise Bishop Michael P. Driscoll, in a June 4 pastoral issued three days before the immigration reform stalled, admitted that the Church’s teaching “may be at odds” with popular sentiment. Bishop Driscoll insists that Catholic social teaching compels believers to work for change: “We stand firmly with our faith tradition which calls us to protect human life and dignity, to serve the poor, the vulnerable and the stranger in our midst and to challenge unjust policies.”

Now there may be more hesitation about hiring legal immigrants. “Employers want to hire legal workers, but under the current situation they are between the devil and the deep blue sea in terms of hiring folks who appear to have legitimate documents,” said Bill Hammond, head of the Texas Association of Business.

Already, farmers in Colorado and other states who depend on immigrant workers are facing labor shortages. A guest worker program would have solved this.

The U.S. economy needs immigrants to make it work. In most places, immigrants are not “stealing” jobs from U.S. citizens. But illegal immigrants help maintain the low wages and few benefits many workers receive.

Expressing Catholic leaders’ disappointment at the Senate’s failure to pass the immigration reform bill, Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, California, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, said: “The status quo is morally unacceptable and should not be allowed to stand. The U.S. bishops shall continue to point out the moral deficiencies in the immigration system and work toward justice until it is achieved.”

U.S. Catholics—most of us descendants of immigrants—need to listen to our bishops and our consciences on this issue. A new bill for immigration reform will probably not surface until after the 2008 elections, but the topic will be hot in the upcoming campaign. A better solution must be found.—B.B.

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