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Immigration reform – a Catholic perspective

Mary Doyle

The young man is traveling on a rail car to get to a job in Canada. He has left his family and his home in Mexico with the promise of work. The photographer captures him praying for safe passage: He holds onto the train between cars, arms extended, standing tall and looking up -- as if stretched upon the cross.
His is just one story in a recent film, “Dying to Live,” that portrays the dangerous journey of migrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico. The film gives us a different perspective from the policy discussions and anti-immigrant fervor sweeping our country.

It tells us the stories of individuals: why they leave, what they hope for, and what they risk crossing through the desert of the southwest. It invites the viewer to relate to the migrant as our neighbor in need, as our brother and sister in Christ.
As friends of Jesus, our starting point for the immigration debate is to recognize migrants as people with dignity, gifts to share, and a rich spiritual and cultural heritage. Catholic social teaching affirms “that all people have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, they have the right to migrate.”

It also calls us to address “the root causes of migration -- poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, armed conflicts -- so that migrants can remain in their homelands and support their families.” (“Strangers No Longer," #28, 29, U.S. and Mexican Bishops, 2003)

Americans seem to agree that the current laws and policies governing immigration are outdated, ineffective and in serious need of repair. Now we face a critical moment in history when we have the opportunity to create an immigration system for the 21st century that provides for national security and reflects our deepest values.

Recently the House of Representatives failed to achieve this when it passed HR 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, a punitive bill which focuses primarily on law enforcement.
The Justice for Immigrants Campaign, a program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, summarizes some of the major provisions of HR 4437 considered harmful to immigrants and those who support them:

• Unlawful presence” in this country would now be considered a crime and a felony, meaning that undocumented immigrants may have to serve jail time and would be barred from future legal status and from re-entry into the country.

• Immigrants, including asylum-seekers, victims of human trafficking, victims of domestic abuse, and children who are apprehended along an international border or at a port-of-entry would be detained until such time as they are removed from the nation or otherwise provided immigration relief.

• Anyone or any organization who “assists” an individual without documentation “to reside in or remain” in the United States knowingly or with “reckless disregard” as to the individual’s legal status would be liable for criminal penalties and five years in prison. This could include church personnel who provide shelter or other basic needs assistance to an undocumented individual. Property used in this act would be subject to seizure and forfeiture.

• The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be required to erect up to 700 miles of fencing along the Southwest border at points with the highest number of immigrant deaths.

• State and local law enforcement are authorized to enforce federal immigration
laws. State and local governments which refuse to participate would be subject to the loss of federal funding.

• The diversity visa lottery program, which allows 50,000 immigrants each year from countries around the world to permanently reside in the United States, is eliminated.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have urged the Senate to reject HR 4437 when it comes before them next month because the provisions would lead our nation down a path of intolerance and exclusion.

Instead, the bishops are urging the Senate to incorporate two basic principles into its immigration reform proposals:

Reform must be comprehensive. True and effective immigration reforms must deal with (1) the undocumented immigrants working and living in the U.S., (2) legal means to enter the country for work and to join family members, (3) enforcement strategies that are effectively targeted and that uphold human dignity.

Moreover, U.S. multi- and bi-lateral international policies must encourage opportunities for people in their home countries to achieve a dignified living and not be compelled to migrate out of necessity.

Provide a pathway to residency and citizenship. The undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. must be given the opportunity to earn the right to remain in the U.S. if they satisfy certain criteria, including that they are not a security threat and not a criminal. Those who pass background and security checks should be eligible for permanent residence and citizenship, if they so desire

These comprehensive reforms are embodied in the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (S.1033), a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy.

The bishops are urging Catholics and others to study this issue and contact their senators urging them to support SB1033.

Through national leadership and moral courage, the Senate can chart a course for our country’s future that maintains our ideals as a nation of immigrants.

(Mary Doyle is social justice resource specialist for the Diocese of Oakland. She can be reached at




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved