Committee on Migration
The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship
February 12, 2004
I am Thomas G. Wenski, coadjutor bishop of Orlando, Florida, and chairman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration. I am pleased to testify today on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. My testimony outlines for the committee the necessary elements, from the perspective of the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops, to be included in any comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
The Catholic Church in the United States is an immigrant church. Approximately one-third of Catholics in the United States today are of Hispanic origin, a percentage which has grown significantly over the last 20 years and mirrors the growth of Hispanics in the nation generally. The Catholic Church in the United States has also experienced growth in the number of Catholics from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
As pastors, the U.S. Catholic bishops witness the consequences of a failed immigration system every day in the eyes of migrants who come to our parish doors in search of assistance. We are shepherds to communities, both along the border and in the interior of the nation, which are impacted by immigration. Most tragically, we witness the loss of life along our southern border when migrants, desperate to find employment to support themselves and their families, perish in the desert.
As we stated with the Mexican bishops in 2003, the Catholic Church plays a special role in the migration phenomenon:
“We witness the vulnerability of our people involved in all sides of the migration phenomenon, including families devastated by the loss of loved ones who have undertaken the migration journey and children left alone when parents are removed from them. We observe the struggles of landowners and enforcement personnel who seek to preserve the common good without violating the dignity of the migrant. And we share in the concern of religious and social service providers who, without violating the civil law, attempt to respond to the migrant knocking at the door.”1
For these reasons, the Catholic Church holds a strong interest in the welfare of immigrants and how our nation welcomes newcomers from all lands. The current immigration system, which can lead to family separation, suffering, and death, is morally unacceptable and must be reformed.
In January, 2003, the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops jointly released a pastoral letter entitled Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. That letter included policy recommendations on reforming the U.S. immigration system, including the employment-based and family-based aspects of the U.S. immigration system. You can find an excerpt of Strangers No Longer, which outlines the necessary elements of a just immigration reform proposal, attached to my testimony. It provides for your consideration recommendations for reform of the U.S. immigration system.
Specifically, the U.S. and Mexican bishops advocate that all aspects of our immigration system should be scrutinized and reformed to reflect the new reality of migration in an increasingly globalized world. Not only must we examine our employment-based immigration system, especially categories impacting low-skilled workers, but also revamp our family-based immigration system to relieve the interminable waiting times for families to reunite. A central component of any immigration reform package should be a broad-based legalization program which provides the opportunity for permanent residency for undocumented persons of all nationalities.
Let me be clear that the Catholic Church does not condone or encourage undocumented migration but seeks to reform a broken immigration system which is ill-equipped to accommodate the migration flows of the twenty-first century. Over the long-term, the Church works for global economic justice and toward a world in which individuals and families are able to remain home to support themselves and their families. In our experience, we have found that migrant workers would prefer to remain in their homeland. Only by addressing the root causes of migration, such as economic injustice and conflict, will we create a climate in which migration is driven by choice and not necessity.
In this regard, then, we would also support efforts for sustainable development in sending countries and communities. Such efforts should be part and parcel of any comprehensive immigration reform package.
On behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I welcome President Bush’s decision to engage the important issue of immigration reform. I also commend the President for his plans to renew bilateral migration talks with the government of Mexico. It is significant that the President recognizes that our immigration system is broken and is in need of reform. As the President acknowledged, immigrants and their families benefit our nation economically, culturally, and socially. As the Administration plan also states, providing legal status for undocumented immigrants contributes to our national security and helps bring these vulnerable persons “out of the shadows.” We agree with these views and with the idea that legal avenues should be created to allow migrants to enter our nation in safety and security.
However, it is critical that we understand that truly comprehensive immigration reform is necessary to address our current immigration crisis. In this regard, we have serious concerns about the scope and type of reform the President proposes.
The issuance of a proposal is an important first step in a long overdue reform of our immigration system. This particular proposal, however, does not provide a solution to the serious problems we experience as a result of a broken immigration system.
Components of reform which are needed include: opportunities for legalization for the undocumented currently living in the United States; temporary worker programs with full worker protections and a path to permanency; and reform of our family immigration system that will allow families to be reunited in a timely fashion. The reforms should be enacted simultaneously so that all aspects of our legal immigration system are addressed. Properly implemented, this reform should alleviate the need for a U.S. border “blockade” policy, which has not discouraged undocumented migration and has driven migrants into dangerous and remote parts of the American Southwest.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to detail the elements of a just and comprehensive immigration reform proposal, as outlined by the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops in their joint letter in January, 2003:
1. Legalization of the undocumented should be a central component of any plan. Any immigration reform proposal should feature a broad-based legalization program which provides undocumented workers and their families currently living in the United States permanent residency and eventual citizenship, if they so choose. Any “earned” legalization plan, which requires prospective work requirements to obtain eligibility for permanent residency, should be achievable and independently verifiable. Eligibility requirements for the program should be generous and permit workers of all nationalities to participate. Family members of those who qualify should also be eligible for permanent residency at the time the principal worker qualifies.
We are encouraged with the Administration’s plan to increase the number of permanent visas (“green cards”) available in the employment-based immigration system. We have long advocated for increasing the number of visas available for this purpose, both in employment-related and family-related categories. We urge the Administration also to increase the number of permanent visas available in the family-based immigration system.
However, we are disappointed that the Administration plan does not allow those who work in the program to access, after some period of time, permanent residency and possible citizenship. We view this as a major flaw and urge Congress to include a generous legalization component in any final legislation.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are an estimated eight million undocumented persons in the United States.2 These persons work in such industries as agriculture, service, construction, and entertainment. They contribute to their communities economically, socially, and culturally and pay billions of dollars to the U.S. tax and Social Security system. As a nation we benefit from the fruits of their labor, but we do not extend to them the benefits of the protection of the law, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
The U.S. Catholic bishops believe legalization is a matter of justice. Until authentic development is achieved in what is now the developing world, individuals will migrate to improve their condition. Indeed, those who come to the United States do so largely to seek a better life for themselves or their families, or simply to survive. While the Church does not condone undocumented immigration, she affirms the “human dignity of the undocumented who live within our midst and makes every effort to ensure that their basic needs are met and that their human rights are not trampled upon.”3
2. Reform of the U.S. Family-Based Immigration System should be included in any plan. While many migrants enter the United States to obtain employment, many others come to join their spouse or family member working in the United States. Permanent residents of Mexican origin must now wait nearly eight years to bring in their spouses and children and over twelve years to bring in their adult sons and daughters. Such a long wait forces spouses in the country-of-origin to make a difficult decision: either wait in line or migrate without papers across the U.S.-Mexican border, a dangerous journey which can end in death.
Family unity and reunification should remain the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system. The Administration plan fails to address this increasingly closed avenue for immigration. We urge Congress to reform this portion of the immigration system by reviewing the current per-country limits on family-based immigration and, at a minimum, making more visas available for immediate family members of U.S. permanent residents.
3. Any temporary worker program should include appropriate protections and a path to residency for workers. The Administration proposal focuses on the creation of a broad, and seemingly unlimited, temporary worker program for foreign workers. The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been skeptical of large-scale “guest worker” programs, which in the past have led to the exploitation of workers. Nevertheless, we recognize that the status quo, in which undocumented workers have no protection of the law, is unacceptable. Legal means should be made available to ensure that migrants do not have to cross the desert, at risk of their lives, to obtain employment in the United States. Any new program, however, must include several elements to ensure that workers are not exploited, including a path to permanent residency; job portability; worker protections that U.S. workers enjoy; wages and employment benefits which allow a family to live in dignity; family unity; and the ability for workers to move easily between the United States and their homelands. In addition, labor-market tests to protect U.S. workers and appropriate enforcement mechanisms to protect worker rights should be included in any program. Workers also should be allowed to accrue Social Security benefits for use upon their return home.
While we applaud President Bush for his recognition that migrant workers should enjoy legal status while they work in the United States, including those currently in the country, the temporary worker program proposed by the Administration falls short of providing appropriate protections to both U.S. and foreign-born workers. To be sure, we are supportive of the proposal’s inclusion of employment visas which would allow workers and their families legally to travel to and from the United States. We also support the plan’s inclusion of Social Security and tax-preferred savings accounts for workers to use back in their home country. However, the proposal does not include other vital elements necessary to avoid the abuses of past “guest worker” programs.
First, the proposal does not include a path to residency for those who participate in the temporary worker program. Any participant would have to obtain permanency through current channels, either through a familial or employment-based relationship. While President Bush indicated in his comments that there would be a “reasonable increase in the number of green cards” in these categories, the exact number which would be available is unclear.
Second, while the proposal indicates that workers would have the protection of current labor laws, including those governing minimum wage, discrimination, and health and safety, it does not indicate how such protection would be enforced. It is unclear what recourse a worker would have for unjust termination, creating an atmosphere in which workers would be reluctant to assert their rights. Labor protections should be specifically outlined in any legislation and workers should have the right to bring action against employers in federal court for violation of their rights.
Third, the proposal contains no labor-market test to ascertain whether U.S. workers would be harmed by an influx of foreign workers. It relies on the employers and the market to determine the need for such workers and appropriate wage levels, leaving the real possibility that wages and working conditions could drop for all workers. While employers would be required to make “every reasonable effort”4 to fill any job with an American worker before offering one to a foreign worker, it is not clear which enforcement mechanisms would be applied to ensure that these efforts are adequately pursued.
The history of “guest worker” programs in this country is not a proud one. The large scale program which existed from the 1940s to the early 1960s, known as the Bracero program, ended abruptly because of the abuse and exploitation of workers. As a nation, we should not make that mistake again. Any new program must include the appropriate protections, as noted above, and must be part of a comprehensive proposal which includes legalization of the undocumented in the United States, reform of our family-based immigration system, and changes in our nation’s border enforcement strategy.
4. A comprehensive approach to immigration reform would alleviate the perceived need for a border blockade enforcement strategy which has failed over the past ten years.
Since the advent of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994, the United States has spent more than $20 billion dollars on Border Patrol agents, reinforced fencing along the border, and technology to prevent undocumented migration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of these resources have been targeted toward urban areas and traditional ports-of-entry as part of a “blockade” strategy to prevent migrants from entering the country. The Administration proposal would continue to expand this failed policy by further increasing the number of Border Patrol agents along our southern border.
This “border blockade” policy has failed and should be abandoned. Since 1990, the number of undocumented in our nation has doubled, from slightly over four million to eight million in 2000.5 At the same time, since 1995 more than 2300 migrants have died attempting to cross remote areas of the American Southwest, most succumbing to the harsh elements of the desert climate.6
The blockade strategy also has given rise to sophisticated smuggling networks, in which migrants pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous smugglers to transport them across the border. The much publicized deaths of 19 immigrants in a truck near Victoria, Texas, in May, 2003, tragically highlights the brutal nature of these smuggling networks. 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, despite the money and resources applied by our government to prevent it.
Only through enlightened changes to our border control policy will we hope to avoid the ongoing tragedy of needless deaths in the desert. The border blockade strategy employed by our government should be gradually phased out and replaced with comprehensive immigration reform which provides legal avenues for migration through ports-of-entry. We are encouraged that President Bush’s proposal recognizes this principle but dismayed that it will continue the failed border policy of the last ten years.
The Administration plan leaves many questions unanswered. In addition to the fact that the Administration plan does not comprehensively address the problems of undocumented migration, it also fails to address many questions as to how such a program would be implemented. As mentioned, it is unclear whether the Administration would increase funding for the enforcement of labor protection laws in any new program. Such enforcement is vital to the protection of workers. Unless the government increases resources to enforce laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, temporary workers will have no real protection against job discrimination, violations of minimum wage, and workplace safety. Unless workers have recourse against employer retaliation or job portability, they will be reluctant to file complaints or bring actions to enforce their rights. The issue of enforcement of worker’s rights should be fully addressed in any reform proposal.
Another important question is whether bars to inadmissibility would be waived under any reform program. Currently, three- and ten-year bars to inadmissibility are applied to undocumented migrants who stay in the United States without permission for twelve and eighteen months, respectively. Current grounds of inadmissibility for unlawful presence must be amended under a new reform program.
In addition, while the proposal indicates a desire to increase the availability of “green cards” for workers who qualify under current categories, there are currently only 5,000 employment-based visas a year for unskilled workers. Without a dramatic increase in this category, workers which qualify because of an employment relationship will still have to wait an undetermined number of years to obtain permanent residency.
Finally, while we are supportive of the idea of Social Security benefit accrual and tax-preferred savings accounts, we are cautious about how such a concept would be implemented. A similar plan was included in the old Bracero program and workers from the program have yet to recoup any of the wages deducted for that purpose. Safeguards must be included to ensure that any deducted wages would be used for their intended purpose.
Other Issues. While we urge the committee and Congress to place comprehensive immigration reform as a top priority, there are two other pieces of significant immigration legislation before this committee and the U.S. Senate. First, we urge you to pass the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, and Security Act of 2003 (S. 1645), legislation which is currently pending before your committee. This important piece of legislation would provide a legalization path for up to 500,000 migrant farm workers who toil in America’s fields.
In addition, we urge the U.S. Senate to pass expeditiously the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) of 2003 (S. 1545), which was passed by this committee late last year. As you know, this legislation would allow for the provision of in-state tuition rates and permanent residency for undocumented students in U.S. secondary schools. We ask that you remove an amendment to the legislation which would preclude these talented students from eligibility for Pell grants and other forms of federal assistance.
Conclusion. In the 2003 pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops call upon both the United States and Mexico to renew bilateral migration talks and work together toward comprehensive immigration reform which would provide legal avenues for migrants to enter the United States. We are pleased that President Bush has taken leadership in this area and restarted a much needed debate on immigration reform. We are disappointed, however, that the Administration proposal falls short of the comprehensive solution necessary to ensure that migrants have legal avenues to enter this country to work and join their family members.
We also are concerned that some of the public rhetoric surrounding this issue since the President’s announcement has minimized the importance of immigrant workers to our nation and, in some cases, ignored their basic human rights and human dignity. We call upon all parties to the debate to recognize the basic human dignity of the migrant and to avoid xenophobic and anti-immigrant attitudes which only serve to lessen us as a community and a nation.
Mr. Chairman, the U.S. Catholic bishops strongly believe that immigration reform should be a top priority for Congress and the Administration. We look forward to working with you and the Administration in the days and months ahead to fashion an immigration system which upholds the valuable contributions of immigrants and reaffirms the United States as a nation of immigrants. Thank you for your consideration of our views.
- U.S. and Mexican Catholic Bishops, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States,” January 23, 2003, n. 4.
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Census 2000 Supplementary Survey Summary Tables: Profile of Selected Social Characteristics, “ available at factfinder.census.gov.
- U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, One Family Under God, U.S. Catholic Conference, September 1995, p. 22.
- “Questions and Answers on Fair and Secure Immigration Reform,” White House Web Site, January 7, 2004.
- B. Lindsay Lowell and Roberto Suro, “How Many Undocumented: The Numbers behind the U.S.-Mexico Migration Talks,” The Pew Hispanic Center, March 21, 2002.
- Mexican Foreign Ministry, “Total General De Fallecidos En Su Intento Por Ingresar A Estados Unidos,” July, 2003.