According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are currently 11-12 million persons without legal status residing in the United States. Each year, approximately 400,000-600,000 immigrants enter the United States without authorization via the U.S./Mexico border. These immigrants are primarily drawn to the United States by either the explicit or implicit promise of employment in several U.S. industries including, but not limited to, the agriculture, construction, and service industries. Moreover, the stagnant Mexican economy makes it difficult (and often, impossible) for such persons to make a living and provide for their families. Survival has thus become an urgent reason for unauthorized immigration.
In addition, the length of time it takes to obtain a U.S. visa has led many persons to choose to enter the United States without one. Significant backlogs in the U.S. visa system and a shortage of available visas have added to the delay. Moreover, these delays are difficult to bear for those who wish to reunite with family members already residing in the United States.
Furthermore, historically the United States’ border and interior enforcement has been inconsistent and thus failed to discourage illegal border crossings. At the federal level, the United States has lacked at some times the will and at other times the consensus to enforce immigration law in any uniform or sustained fashion. Moreover, in the absence of strong federal leadership, state and local authorities have pursued disparate immigration policies. The result has been a nation and a society that has not adequately established and maintained the rule of law and consequently has not deterred unauthorized migration at the southern border.
Although immigration was a key issue on the 2007 Congressional agenda, federal lawmakers did not reach a consensus on how to enact immigration reform. For instance, Senator Kennedy’s (D-MA) and Senator Kyl’s (R-AZ) comprehensive reform bill featuring a new temporary worker program, a path to legalization for the vast majority of the 12 million undocumented immigrants, enforcement measures, and a points system failed in June when they could not muster enough votes to cut off debate. Likewise, Congress was not able to enact AgJOBS, the DREAM Act, or the STRIVE Act.
In November, 2007, an “enforcement only” bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Heath Schuler (D-NC) called the SAVE Act (Secure America with Verification and Enforcement). The SAVE Act would expand border enforcement funding, personnel, and technology; implement a nationwide workplace verification system; require employees whose social security number does not match their name and date of birth to prove their legal status; enhance criminal penalties for alien smugglers; grant financial aid to state and local authorities for the enforcement of immigration law; increase capacity at detention facilities and construct a family detention facility; and add 13 federal district court judges to help reduce the backlog of immigration courts in border regions.
In early 2008, the Hispanic Caucus, in conjunction with Congressional leadership, has considered introducing a temporary visa program for undocumented immigrants. While the details of this policy remain unseen, it is likely that such a measure would allow undocumented workers who currently reside in the United States to apply for a three- to five-year visa for themselves and their immediate family members.
The political viability of immigration reform in 2008 and beyond will largely turn on the dynamics of the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections.
Catholic Social Teaching
The Catholic Catechism teaches that in the realm of immigration law all governments have two essential duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored.
The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the dignity and rights of the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, consistent with its other obligations to the common good. The right to immigrate is a therefore a qualified, rather than an absolute right. Nevertheless, all nations and especially financially blessed nations are called to make every possible effort to assist persons who are compelled by their circumstances to migrate. As the Catechism states:
"The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” 1The second duty of government is to secure its border and enforce immigration law for the sake of the common good, including the safety and well-being of the nation’s inhabitants and the rule of law. Sovereign nations thus have the right and the responsibility to enforce immigration laws and all persons must respect and obey the legitimate exercise of this authority. For their part, immigrants are called to obey the law and carry out their civic duties in furtherance of the common good. 2 According to the Catechism:
“Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens." 3In January 2003, the U.S. Catholic Bishops emphasized and affirmed the Catechism’s teaching on immigration in a pastoral letter on migration entitled, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” In their letter, the Bishops stressed that, “When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right4…More powerful economic nations…have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” 5
Furthermore, the Church has taught that both the sovereign nation and the immigrant should remain in solidarity by each actively seeking the common good. As Pope John Paul II stated in Solicitudo Rei Socialis:
“Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity should not adopt a purely passive attitude, or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all.”6USCCB Position
The United States Catholic Bishops Conference (USCCB) believes that meaningful immigration reform must properly balance the right to migrate and the right to regulate migration. Thus, the USCCB opposes “enforcement only” immigration policies because they lack proper accommodation of the right to migrate. Instead, the USCCB supports “comprehensive” immigration policies that pare valid enforcement laws with fair and generous legalization measures. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have outlined various elements of their proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. The key elements of comprehensive reform advocated by the Bishops are:
Earned Legalization: An earned legalization program with a path to citizenship would require unauthorized workers to work for several years, take English courses, and pay a fine in order to participate in the program. Such a program would help stabilize the workforce, promote family unity, and bring a large population “out of the shadows,” as members of their communities.
Enforcement: The Bishops support the legitimate and important role of the United States government in enforcing immigration law at the border and in the interior. The Bishops also believe that by replacing illegal migration with legal migration, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would-be terrorists. Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane.
Future Worker Program: A worker program to permit foreign-born workers to enter the country safely and legally would help reduce illegal immigration and the loss of life in the American desert. Any program should include workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity.
Family-based immigration reform: It currently takes years for family members to be reunited through the family-based legal immigration system. This leads to family breakdown and, in some cases, illegal immigration. Changes in the family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.
Addressing Root Causes: Congress should examine the root causes of migration, such as wage inequities and the lack of job opportunities in sending countries, and seek long-term solutions. The antidote to the problem of illegal immigration is sustainable economic development in sending countries. Ideally, migration should be driven by choice, not necessity.
Restoration of Due Process Rights: Due process rights taken away by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) should be restored, particularly the use of judicial discretion in deportation proceedings.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000, no. 2241.
2 Pope John Paul II took up this point on the duties of both the advantaged and disadvantaged in Solicitudo Rei Socialis: “Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity should not adopt a purely passive attitude, or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all.” John Paul II, Encyclical letter, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 39 (1987).
3 See fn. 1.
4 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Migration, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States,” no. 35 (January 2003).
5 See fn. 3 at no. 36.
6 John Paul II, Encyclical letter, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 39 (1987).