at the 8th Annual Convening of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.
I am pleased to be here at the eighth annual CLINIC convening. I would like to thank up-front the hardworking CLINIC staff and particularly Don Kerwin, the executive director.
I would like this morning to capture for you, if I can the state of affairs when it comes to the issue of immigration in the United States. I do not believe I am overstating the current political atmosphere to say that we are at a pivotal time in our nation's history and that our heritage as a nation of immigrants is at risk.
Each day in the newspaper or on TV or talk radio we hear messages about immigrants and how they may threaten our nation, our way of life. Opponents of immigration and immigration reform continue to use the tragic events of September 11 as an avenue to associate all immigrants with terrorists. Private citizens, calling themselves "Minutemen," are threatening to take the law into their own hands and have transfixed the media's attention. Congress is passing anti-immigrant legislation (the REAL ID Act) without the benefit of hearings or meaningful debate. Indeed, these are challenging times.
While we have lost a few battles, we can still win the war. No less than the future of our nation is at stake. Despite the setbacks we have experienced over the past ten years, I am still optimistic that our elected officials are capable of "doing the right thing" on immigration reform. There are several reasons for this optimism.
First, I believe the policy arguments are in our favor, particularly because they match the reality we see everyday in work places, communities, and agricultural fields throughout the country. It is becoming more apparent to our policymakers in Washington that an "enforcement-only" approach is not working. Since the beginning of the border enforcement strategy ten years ago, Washington has spent billions of dollars on our southern border to prevent undocumented migration, to no avail. At the same time, the number of undocumented in our nation has more than doubled. Tragically, these efforts have led to the rise of smuggling networks and the deaths of migrants in the desert.
Second, I believe that, despite the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant lobby, the American people, on the whole, are a compassionate and welcoming people who, when presented with the facts, will support a humane solution to the immigration crisis. Once they get past the slogans and name calling and scapegoating, Americans understand that immigrants benefit our nation. They certainly know that the nanny, or the painter, or the mechanic that they know personally is a good person, a person who, in their mind, is not an "illegal alien" but someone with an immigration problem, perhaps someone they would like to help. What we need to do is tap that reserve of good will and translate it on a macro level.
Third, while our opponents may have money and some allies in the media, they do not have our capacity, properly utilized. We are like a sleeping giant that, if awoken properly, can overwhelm the opposition. We simply need to mobilize the troops with the right messages and the right organization.
That is why the Justice for Immigrants Campaign is so important. It addresses all three of these points: education, activation/organization, and advocacy. We need to educate Catholics and others as to the Church teaching and the facts about immigration. We need to translate their good will into action, and we need to teach them to advocate. The Campaign is designed to accomplish these goals, with your help and the help of the bishops around the country. The current political situation is in some ways similar to 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, but has some significant differences as well. Then we had a large undocumented population that policymakers had to address. We also had a Republican president. What we did not have was the political fallout of a major terrorist attack. We were still in the midst of the Cold War, but near its end. Certainly millions of undocumented immigrants were not considered Communists then, like restrictionists attempt to paint them as terrorists now.
So we still have to address the national security issue. In his statement announcing the Justice for Immigrants campaign just this week, His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick articulated the feelings of the bishops in this regard: "Let us not scapegoat all immigrants who come to our land – and who contribute their God-given talent to our communities – for the actions of a few. It is my belief, and that of my brother bishops, that our nation can meet the challenge of ensuring national security without closing America's door to the oppressed and downtrodden."
So, in order to meet this challenge, we are going to have to accept, and even support, appropriate enforcement mechanisms. This does not come easy for the Bishops, since we are more interested in forgiveness than punishment. But any enforcement regime should be targeted, proportional, and humane. It should target those who seek to harm us through the use of information sharing and intelligence gathering. It should be proportional by not imposing harsh penalties for lesser offenses or for being without documentation. And it should be humane so that migrants are not treated as criminals.
We also did not have in 1986 the degree influence of faith-based groups in the political arena as we do now. If the 2004 presidential election teaches us anything, it teaches us that faith groups can have a powerful impact on the U.S. political scene and who is in political power. We, and I include the bishops in this, need to reach out to other faith groups, including Evangelical Christians, and use that leverage on behalf of immigrants, especially the undocumented.
Finally, we need to be prepared to implement legislation that is passed by Congress. My experience in 1986 was that the success of any program relies as much on how it is implemented than what is written in the bill. Inevitably notarios and other fraudulent interests will seek to take advantage of the confusion that often follows the passage of legislation. We need to take steps now to prevent that by ensuring that we have the training and capacity to implement a new program. The Campaign should help achieve this goal as well, with CLINIC as the lead.
On this point, allow me some personal thoughts about the network of legal service providers that are represented here today. You know that I consider CLINIC my brainchild and progeny. I presented the concept of CLINIC when I interviewed for the director of Migration and Refugee Services nearly 20 years ago, and CLINIC formally came into being in 1988 when I directed MRS. Prior to CLINIC, the U.S. Bishops directly administered the legal immigration programs in four locations: New York, El Paso, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. I call the pre-CLINIC period a "tale of four cities." The idea behind CLINIC was that rather than directly serving immigrants in four sites, it would link and support all of the Catholic immigration programs in the United States.
This seems an obvious idea and need now, but it was not in place then. You might not know that, as a young parish priest, I myself assisted immigrants with their immigration forms. I will not say whether or not I was "accredited" to do this work. The need for CLINIC existed then, and it exists even more today. I have said many times that if CLINIC did not exist, somebody would have to create it.
Of course, CLINIC has its own corporate structure and staff, some of whom have worked for the Church for many, many years. For example, Jim Hoffman had been providing devoted service to dioceses, religious institutes, and low-income immigrants for years. We have been very blessed to have staff like Jim and many others. At the same time, we realize that CLINIC is much more than an agency of 50 people; it is really all of you, the network of Catholic immigration programs. And I cannot tell you how gratified I have been – and the bishops of the United States have been – at the growth in size and sophistication of this network over the last 15 years. I am the U.S. representative on the Global Commission for Immigration Reform, a body designated by the United Nations to make recommendations on the international regime governing migrants and newcomers. From this experience, I can tell you that no other nation in the world has a network of charitable service providers that matches the CLINIC network – you.
Having said all that, we cannot rest on our laurels. The bishops need you at the forefront of the Justice for Immigrants campaign, both as advocates and as those who will ultimately assure the operational success of immigration reform. As I said, I was involved first-hand in both the legislative push for legalization in 1986 and in implementing the IRCA and SAW programs. I can tell you based on that experience that we will need a total mobilization of our Church resources and networks to secure appropriate legislation in what is a more difficult political climate today. We also will need to expand our legal capacity to serve more than 10 million persons, a population several times larger than the undocumented population in 1986. You will be key to meeting both of these challenges.
Even with the many scars I have from immigration battles past, I am optimistic that, with hard work and the courage of our convictions, we can prevail. I end with the motto, if you will, of the late and great John Paul II, a champion of immigrant rights: "Be not afraid!"