WASHINGTON (July 27, 2005) — The current U.S. immigration system is "morally unacceptable," according to the chairman of the Migration Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who outlined the bishops' recommendations for comprehensive immigration reform in testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The Catholic Church holds a strong interest in the welfare of immigrants and how our nation welcomes newcomers from all lands," said Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino (CA). "The current immigration system, which can lead to family separation, suffering, and even death, is morally unacceptable and must be reformed."
Citing a long history of Catholic social teaching on migration, including a historic joint pastoral letter by the bishops of the United States and Mexico in 2003, Bishop Barnes noted that the church's interest in migrants "stems from the belief that every person is created in God's image."
Bishop Barnes detailed the USCCB's policy recommendations in six broad categories: addressing economic root causes of migration; legalization of the undocumented; employment-based immigration; family-based immigration; due process; and enforcement.
Economic Root Causes of Migration. Increased economic integration between the United States and Mexico in the last 25 years, especially since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, has not led to improving living standards
for the majority of Mexicans, Bishop Barnes said. And economic growth in Mexico has not kept pace with growth in the labor force. He recommended that Congress consider an economic package which targets sectors of the Mexican economy, especially agriculture, which employ low-skilled workers. He also urged Congress to examine NAFTA's impact on low-skilled Mexican workers and to consider ways to mitigate the negative impacts which lead to migration.
Legalization. "A main feature of any comprehensive immigration reform measure should be a legalization program which allows undocumented immigrants of all nationalities in the United States the opportunity to obtain permanent residency, either because of contributions already made or through a prospective work requirement," Bishop Barnes said. Specifically, he said a program of legalization would keep families together; recognize and maintain the economic contributions of the undocumented; improve wages and working conditions for all workers; promote development and stability in Mexico and Central America; and help bring U.S. immigration policy in line with U.S. economic policy.
Anticipating the common criticism that the bishops' call for legalization equals amnesty for the undocumented, Bishop Barnes referred to provisions of the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (S. 1033), introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), which the USCCB generally supports.
"We … do not believe an earned legalization program is an 'amnesty' as traditionally understood, since it requires payment of fines and a work requirement of six years before a worker can apply for permanent residency," he said.
Employment-based Immigration. Abuses in past "guest worker" programs can and must be avoided, Bishop Barnes said, and a new model for a temporary worker program would help to protect the rights and welfare of U.S. and foreign workers alike. "A just worker program which creates legal avenues for migration will mitigate the amount and effects of undocumented migration, which can lead to abuse, exploitation, or even death of migrants," Bishop Barnes said.
Family-based Immigration. Statutory limits on family immigration, enacted in 1990, are now inadequate and can lead to waits of more than eight years for spouses to reunite and for parents to reunite with minor children, Bishop Barnes said. The wait for adult siblings can be 20
years or longer. He said the system is in "urgent need of reform. Such lengthy waiting times are unacceptable and can actually provide unintentional incentive for some migrants to come to the United States illegally."
Due process. Some foreign nationals are denied due process of law – the requirement that they be treated fairly in legal proceedings – and can be barred admission to the United States, permanently in some cases, because of previous infractions of immigration law, regardless of how minor. "In our view, the penalty for violating these grounds of inadmissibility are disproportionate to the actual violation committed," Bishop Barnes said. "They also separate families for indefinite periods." He urged Congress to repeal the harshest of these laws.
Enforcement. While reaffirming the Catholic Church's recognition of nations' rights to protect their borders, Bishop Barnes also said the human dignity of the individual must be protected in any law enforcement action. "We have grown increasingly concerned that the U.S. immigration enforcement regime violates basic human dignity and has placed the lives of migrants at risk," he said. Despite the expenditure of more that $20 billion since 1994 to secure the southern border, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 undocumented migrants still cross into the United States from Mexico each year. "It is evident that the basic human need to survive will continue to force migrants to attempt to run the gauntlet of our southern border," Bishop Barnes said. He indicated that reform that is truly comprehensive would mitigate the need to migrate, and as part of that he urged a reformed enforcement regime which is targeted, proportional, and humane.
Bishop Barnes again endorsed the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJobs) and the Development, Relief, and Education Act for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) in the Senate and its companion in the House, the Student Adjustment Act, and urged their inclusion in any comprehensive reform package.
"We are hopeful that, as our public officials debate this issue, that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are not blamed for the social and economic challenges we face as a nation," Bishop Barnes said. "Rhetoric which attacks the human dignity of the migrant does not serve the interest of fair deliberation and leads to polarization and division."