U.S. immigration policy outdated and unjust toward working immigrants – May 13, 2005

Last month’s round-up of 66 undocumented workers at a federal construction site in downtown Orlando reminds us that “ America’s immigration system is…outdated — unsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country. We should not be content with laws that punish hardworking people who want only to provide for their families.” The quote belongs to President George W. Bush and was spoken to Congress during his State of the Union address earlier this year.

The arrests of these “hardworking people who want only to provide for their families” did nothing to enhance our national security which was the pretext used by B.I.C.E. (the Bureau of Immigration and Control Enforcement) in arresting them. Nor for that matter does the vigilante “justice” of Minutemen and other civilian groups that have taken the enforcement of immigration laws into their own hands on our nation’s southwestern border.

Spending so much of our scarce enforcement resources chasing brick layers, housekeepers, and waiters seeking a better life for their families should no longer be an acceptable application of our security resources in a post 9/11 world. There are after all real criminals, drug dealers and terrorists to apprehend.

To fix the system, we must address both the future flow of immigrants into the United States as well as the undocumented workers who already live here. The so-called “illegals” are so not because they wish to defy the law; but, because the law does not provide them with any channels to regularize their status in our country – which needs their labor: they are not breaking the law, the law is breaking them. If the parties in Congress put aside narrow partisan interests and truly work for the common good, we can achieve reform that protects the interests of all workers, both immigrant and U.S. born.

Real reform should recognize that immigrants are already part of our communities and provide common-sense rules for workers and employers. Many immigrants work in essential but low-paying jobs that most Americans pass over. They care for our children and elderly, clean our office buildings and hotel rooms, harvest and serve our food, and labor on construction sites and other projects in our communities. These immigrant workers should be able to seek a decent wage, health care, and respect on the job from employers who may freely hire them without having to worry about legal sanctions.

The U.S. Catholic bishops were among the several religious, labor, business and immigrant advocacy organizations excited to hear that President Bush had an immigration reform plan, first unveiled in January 2004. At that time we congratulated him for restarting the dialogue on immigration reform. Since his reelection, with his State of the Union address and his recent meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, we are hopeful the president still means to re-energize the debate over immigration reform. The re-emergence of “nativist” anti-immigrant sentiment that evokes the xenophobia of the 19th century “Know-Nothings” should not be allowed to derail the broad based coalition for substantive immigration reform that is emerging among labor, business and faith-based organizations.

It is time to acknowledge those who come to our nation, work hard, and contribute to the economic, cultural, and social fabric of our country, just as many of our own grandparents and great-grandparents did. What happened to those sixty-six workers last month was not fair – and it is not fair that, in the land of the free, thousands like them live in fear of a “knock on the door” in the middle of the night. It is only fair that these people who add to our society through their hard work should be valued, just as President Bush said.