Framework for reform raises U.S. bishops’ hopes

Momentum is building in Washington, D.C., for immigration reform, and that has Catholics involved in immigration matters hopeful that Congress can successfully tackle the politically sensitive topic by year’s end. 

“The time to act is now. Now there is really a chance to really do something,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, a University of Notre Dame professor who has written extensively and produced documentaries on immigration. 

With no concrete legislation yet on the table, Father Groody told Our Sunday Visitor that much of the debate remains in embryonic form, though adding the fact that both Democrats and Republicans are seriously discussing immigration shows that “change is in the air.” 

“There has been a shift in the narrative in the sense that (immigrants) are being seen not as outsiders coming in to take things from us, but that these are people who have something to give and that they add something important to our country,” Father Groody said.

Pathway to citizenship

The bipartisan group of senators and President Barack Obama have come out in recent weeks with respective immigration reform plans that would include a “pathway to citizenship,” a proposal decried by critics as “amnesty” that would provide an avenue for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to obtain legal residence. 

“A lot of these people have been here for a long time. It’s unrealistic to expect them to go back to countries that they don’t know anything about, especially when you consider many of the younger kids have been educated in the United States and consider this country their home,” said Melissa M. Lopez, interim executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, which borders Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. 

A collection of House members, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, has also been working on the immigration issue and was expected to reveal its own legislation, said to be similar to the senators’ plan, by President Obama’s Feb. 12 State of the Union address, according to published reports. 

“I think we have a good shot. If we stand together and work hard on this, by the end of the year, we can have a good product,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs. Appleby told OSV that the Church can play a leading role in pushing immigration reform through Congress. 

“It’s a big moment,” Appleby said. “Bringing 11 million people out of the shadows, putting them on a path to citizenship, that would be the biggest achievement.” 

President Obama unveiled his immigration plan during a Jan. 29 speech in Nevada, where he called for the pathway to citizenship, as well as border security enhancements and workplace enforcement provisions. In subsequent interviews with Spanish cable networks, the president said he hoped immigration reform can be passed in the next six months, but “definitely” by the end of this year. 

The president’s plan is similar to what the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” — whose members include Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — has proposed: a pathway to citizenship, though it would be contingent to the U.S.-Mexico border being secured. 

Under the senators’ plan, when the border is deemed secure — exactly how that determination would be made remains to be worked out — undocumented immigrants would be given immediate but provisional legal status to live and work in the United States.

How the plan works

The undocumented immigrants would be required to register with the federal government, undergo criminal background checks and pay fines and back taxes. They could apply for green cards to permanently stay in the country, but would have to go through more background checks, learn English, take civics classes and pay taxes. They would then be sent to the “back of the line,” meaning they could not get green cards until those already waiting received their papers. 

Meanwhile, the federal government would step up border enforcement through hiring more border agents, using unmanned drones and requiring employers to verify job applicants’ immigration statuses. The senators’ plan also seeks to simplify the visa process to make legal immigration more appealing while developing a new system to crack down on those who overstay their visas. 

Though significant gaps remain between the president’s and senators’ plans — including the exact timeline for when undocumented immigrants could obtain the provisional legal status — the fact that both visions include the pathway to citizenship is significant, though it would still face obstacles in the Republican-controlled House, where more conservative members are likely to balk over the “amnesty” provision. 

“Amnesty is not a dirty word from the Catholic perspective,” Appleby said. “It’s a Catholic value. It’s an American value.” 

Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester made the same point in a Jan. 29 editorial in the Deseret News of Utah. 

“Immigrants who earn permanent residency and citizenship by meeting (the senators’) requirements are not being forgiven for their offense. They are earning their right to remain in the United States,” said Bishop Wester, who also wrote that the immigration debate to date has featured “misinformation and labeling of immigrants.” 

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, welcomed the principles in the senators’ plan. 

“It is an important first step in the process and sets a bipartisan tone,” Archbishop Gomez said in a statement, adding that the pathway to citizenship was vital “so that undocumented immigrants can come out of the shadows and into the light and have a chance to become Americans. It gives hope to millions of our fellow human beings.”

Taking action

The USCCB’s 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” outlined several policy goals for immigration reform consistent with the framework offered by the Senate’s Gang of Eight: a path to citizenship, protecting and enhancing the family-based immigration system, restoring due process for immigrants facing removal under a 1996 federal law, providing legal paths for low-skilled immigrant workers to enter the country, and addressing the root causes of irregular migration, such as persecution and the absence of living wages. 

“I don’t think any legislation will get through Congress unless the issues of security are dealt with,” Father Groody said. “But we need to look at the root issues of why people are immigrating.” 

The USCCB is urging citizens to contact their congressmen and encourage them to support comprehensive reform. The political landscape appears to have improved for immigration reform because a growing number of Republican lawmakers and commentators — stung by their party’s November general election defeats — believe the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric from some corners in the GOP alienated voters. 

“I would like to think compassion and good sense are actually driving the debate, but I don’t think so. It’s probably more political pragmatism,” Father Groody said. “Even so, mixed motives are fine as long as we get the job done.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.