Politics delay passage of immigration reform

As the year began, advocates for immigration reform might have thought legislation was right around the corner.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives were talking about principles for immigration reform, and President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union address that he was making it a priority this year. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June 2013. Groups as disparate as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree that the country’s immigration policy is in a shambles and needs an overhaul.

A few weeks later, the goal of comprehensive immigration reform seems as far away as ever. Asked what it would take to get a reform bill passed this year that would be acceptable to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the conference, said, “How about a miracle?”

Political play

The problem is not that a majority of congressional representatives are against reforming immigration policy and providing some kind of path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently in the country, Appleby said. The problem is that an influential and vocal minority is against it, and their opposition is enough to throw sand in the works of a divided political situation where the two sides do not seem to want to work together.

Appleby, added, though, that the situation is “not as bleak as it looks.”

“The fundamental trends are in the direction of reform,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “If we put this on the floor of the House right now, it would pass, and it would pass with some Republican votes.”But Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, does not want to call it for a vote until there is a bill most Republicans support up for consideration. In early February, Boehner said chances were slim that a bill would make it out of Congress this year, with one obstacle being Republican distrust that Obama would enforce whatever law a Republican-controlled Congress passed.

Other Republican congressmen who have expressed at least theoretical support for immigration reform including Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have said the only reform bills they would support would put “security first.” Even Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Feb. 9 that passing immigration reform would be good for the Republican Party nationally, “but when you take it district by district, it’s hard to get a majority of Republicans to sign onto it.”

Catholic views

A bill that would win Republican support might not pass muster with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have been in the forefront of advocacy for immigration reform since 2005, when they issued “Strangers No Longer,” a joint pastoral letter with the Mexican bishops’ conference. In the USCCB’s most recent attempt to call attention to the plight of immigrants, members of the Committee on Migration and Refugee Services plan to gather in Arizona on March 31-April 1 to tour the U.S.-Mexico border and offer a Mass in memory of the nearly 6,000 migrants who have died trying to cross into the United States.

Polls show a majority of Americans favor creating “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented residents, although the GOP is more likely than Democrats to say securing the border is a priority.

But the USCCB would not support a bill that would prevent undocumented immigrants from achieving legally protected status for years while various “enforcement targets” aimed at eliminating illegal immigration are achieved, or a bill that would make it impossible for people who are in the country without documents to ever become citizens, essentially condemning them to permanent second-class status, Appleby said. The conference also objects to a proposal that would call on state and local law enforcement authorities to enforce federal immigration law because it could criminalize nonprofits, including Catholic agencies, that provide human services such as emergency food supplies to undocumented immigrants.

Indeed, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, M.Sp.S., auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the migration committee, commented Jan. 29 on the House Republican principles for immigration reform that, while encouraged reform was on the House Republicans’ agenda, the bishops were concerned about some of the principles, particularly one that would confer legal status, and not a path to citizenship, to the undocumented in the country.

Catholics who want to influence their representatives on immigration reform should engage in good old-fashioned politics by contacting their legislators, Appleby said. Because while Americans might tell pollsters they are in favor of immigration reform, “the challenge has been getting people to pick up the phone or write a letter. It’s not as clear to many people how it affects them directly as it is with taxes or health care reform.”

Keeping faith

The only way it would be clear is if the United States had to function without its immigrants for a while, Appleby said, although people sometimes change their minds when they get to know undocumented immigrants personally.

Elena Segura, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education, said something like that happened with Dennis Hastert, a former Republican Speaker of the House from the western suburbs of Chicago.

In 2006, when immigration reform advocates from the Chicago area collected 200,000 postcards in opposition to an anti-illegal immigration bill, Segura was with a group that traveled to Washington to present them. At the time, she said, Hastert, a Catholic, was totally opposed to immigration reform. Now, he is an advocate for change.

“They are part of our neighborhoods, they go to our churches, their kids go to our schools, they work in our factories, they mow the grass, they dig trees, they wash dishes, they make beds in motels — I mean, they’re productive people,” Hastert said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “And our economy really couldn’t operate without that group. ... Unless those people can have some legitimacy, they can never move forward.”

Segura called Hastert “a Paul of our time” in light of his conversion on the immigration issue, which she attributed to the prayers sent in his direction and his opportunity to meet undocumented immigrants. “I believe we should not just pray for votes, we should pray for the change of hearts,” Segura said. “That is salvation for both sides.”

Segura has not lost faith that immigration reform will become reality.

“We believe in a God who is always with the people who are suffering,” she said. “Sometimes pilgrimages are short, and sometimes pilgrimages are long, and this is a long pilgrimage for the undocumented community.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.