Immigration has played an important role in the development of the countries in North America. To varying degrees and resulting from different historical experiences, Mexico, Canada, and the United States can be called nations of immigrants. And, as with the migration phenomenon worldwide, in recent years these countries have again seen large numbers of migrants in search of opportunities and freedom. In fact, migration is one of the top public policy issues facing these nations today.
This paper briefly reviews some migration-related collaboration within the Church in the region and then highlights the immigration situation in the United States.
From Welcoming to Nativist Attitudes
For the most part, North America has been a hospitable refuge for many of the world’s migrants and refugees, but the terrorist attacks of 2001 against the U.S. and the ensuing war on terror have given rise to restrictionist policies and a growing public weariness toward migrants. This diminishing openness manifests not only in more limited immigration policies in the countries of North America, but have also encouraged regional pacts designed to reduce the entry of migrants, including those fleeing persecution.
As the public debate over migration intensifies throughout North America, the Church has been moved to exert her moral authority through education and advocacy on behalf of migrants. Inspired by the post-synod exhortation, Ecclesia in America in 1999, and informed by Catholic social teaching and the Church’s experience as an immigrant church in North America, the bishops of Mexico and the United States, for example, began an unprecedented dialogue on ways of collaborating across international boundaries in response to the pastoral and social needs of migrants. This dialogue led to the issuance of a joint pastoral letter by the Mexican and U.S. bishops on the fourth anniversary of Ecclesia in America. In this document, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the bishops set forth a series of recommendations for changes that are needed, both in the way the Church responds to migrants and in the way public laws and policies treat migrants.
The recommendations contained in the pastoral letter for improving the Church’s pastoral response to migrants include such proposals as:
- Strengthening the Church’s capacity to accompany the migrant during the journey through the training and placement of pastoral agents to minister to migrants on each leg of the journey and at destination.
- Incorporating into the formation curricula for seminarians and religious training in ministering to migrants.
- Development of lay leadership among the migrants.
- Exchange of clergy between the U.S. and Mexico to foster an immersion experience in ministering to migrants.
- Advocating with the governments of Mexico and the United States for public policies and laws that uphold the dignity of migrants, including such issues as border enforcement, asylum, detention, and removal policies.
- Reforming U.S. immigration system, to include an earned legalization program for the undocumented in the country; a temporary workers program with appropriate safeguards; reduction in the backlog of family reunification visas; restoration of due process protections for immigrants; and protecting asylum seekers and refugees.
Earlier this month, for instance, the bishops of Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica met in the diocese of Tabasco, Mexico, to continue the dialogue. While there, the bishops visited migrants held in detention facilities, met with Mexican immigration authorities and border guards, as well as with the Mexican Foreign Minister. These and other similar initiatives have served to strengthen the Church’s voice on behalf of migrants and to enhance the Church’s capacity to respond to the pastoral, social, and legal needs of migrants.
The U.S. Immigration Situation
The United States was founded by refugees fleeing religious persecution and has been inhabited since its founding 230 years ago largely by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty, which sits in the New York harbor, is a symbol of freedom and welcome in which traditionally Americans take pride. Yet, in recent times and continuing today, the United States faces a critical juncture at which its openness to immigration is at risk.
The Church in the United States also traces her roots to the immigration experience. And, though most American Catholics are descendents of immigrants, they, too, are now ambivalent about the hospitality and openness toward newcomers and prospective immigrants.
Why is this? What’s going on that gives rise to a growing restrictionist attitude among a people who cherish their immigrant heritage and whose economy depends upon foreign labor? The answer lies in two phenomena: (1) the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and (2) the perception, if not the reality, of unprecedented and uncontrolled immigration.
As has been the case in previous times of war, U.S. immigration policies following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism have undergone close and critical scrutiny, with growing public pressure to become more restrictive. In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, for example, refugee admissions to the U.S. dropped from more than 70,000 per year to less than 30,000 per year in 2002 and 2003. Today, refugee admissions total about 50,000 per year, but recently enacted anti-terrorism laws are likely to reduce refugee admissions in 2006 and 2007, at least, to less than 40,000 and has the potential for undermining the U.S. refugee admissions program altogether.
Likewise, U.S. policies have become much more restrictive toward asylum seekers and detention used as a deterrent is now the norm. At the federal and state levels lawmakers are proposing and enacting laws designed to restrict access to public benefits and eliminating or curtailed immigrants’ recourse to due process. Many of these initiatives are intended to create inhospitable conditions so that those in the country without proper authority will leave and that prospective immigrants will reconsider.
Another reason Americans are growing uneasy about immigration is the perception that there are too many immigrants, including an unacceptably large number of those here without proper authority. This has given rise to the perception that U.S. territorial borders are porous, thus undermining security efforts designed to thwart the entry of terrorists. The number of undocumented immigrants is quite high (estimated to be in the range of 10 to 13 million or nearly 5% of the total U.S. population), and the total number of foreign born in the U.S. is at record highs (35 million.)
Adding to the perception problem is the fact that U.S. immigration over the past two decades has been more geographically dispersed than ever before. Historically, immigrants typically settled in the port regions of the country. Places like New York, California, Florida, Texas, and Illinois traditionally housed the vast majority of new immigrants. In recent times, however, drawn largely by employment opportunities, immigrants are settling in virtually every region of the country. Communities that just 15 years ago had relatively little experience with immigrants, today have large and growing immigrant populations.
The Church’s Response
Against this backdrop, the Church in the United States has launched a national campaign to change public attitudes toward immigrants, to create the political will for positive reforms in immigration laws and policies, and to enact laws that comport to the bishops’ principles for immigration reform. The Justice for Immigrants Campaign was launched in May 2005 and involves a broad cross section of the Church in educational, media outreach, and grassroots lobbying efforts. This Campaign and the goals it attempts to achieve is a direct consequence of the jointly issued pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer.
In most dioceses in the country local Justice for Immigrants campaigns have been initiated and the bishops and other diocesan leaders are actively engaged. Special educational outreach to parishes has been pursued. At the national level, the bishops’ conference provides a range of resource materials to assist the diocesan efforts. An interactive website has been created that not only contains such resource materials as a comprehensive “parish kit,” but also allows communications to elected officials to be generated and sent from the site, as well as communications to media outlets. The bishops’ national staff also work with the U.S. legislative and executive branches of government to shape legislation and policies.
Although there is a growing, well-organized and well-financed, restrictionist voice, including within the Catholic community, which is at odds with the Church’s position, the Justice for Immigrants Campaign is making a difference. Public opinion polls demonstrate that if Americans, and Catholics in particular, take time to inform themselves of the bishops’ proposals for reforms, the vast majority will give their support.
So, the challenge for the Church in the United States at this critical time is to effectively reach Catholics and others in order to teach about the Christian values that should inform attitudes towards immigrants and to inform about the Church’s prescription for changing our laws and policies in ways that manifest these Christian values.
Presented July 2, 2006
By Mark Franken