My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The immigration history of America has not been one of our stellar achievements. Unfortunately, nativism, racism, xenophobia and every other type of negative public reaction have played a part in the development of our immigration laws and practices. From Ellis Island and before, immigrants were carefully screened for diseases, mental illness and anything else that would make them a detriment to our society before entry into the United States. The first anti-immigration message was directed at Chinese immigrants, which was passed into law in 1882 by President Chester Arthur. We are all familiar with executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, which authorized internment of Germans, Italians and Japanese.
This history is a checkered one. However, some bright spots shone especially when the 1924 national origin legislation, which discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans, was replaced in 1965 by the system we have today. This system, notwithstanding some tweaking in the meantime, needs great revision. This is what we call “comprehensive immigration reform.”
One neglected part of the immigration law since 1929 is that workers who have overstayed their time in the United States have had a legal way of regularizing their status. This has been built into the law from the very beginning, recognizing that most people come to the United States to work and to contribute, which is being forgotten in the debates of today.
Unfortunately, President Trump is not being served well by those who were advising him in this area, during his campaign speech on immigration. One group then-candidate Trump mentioned is the Center for Immigration Studies, which has published 79 executive actions, which give a plan for curtailing immigration that urged the new administration to take.
I serve as chairman of two non-partisan immigration study centers: The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and the Center for Migration Studies in New York City, sponsored by the Scalabrinian Fathers. Also, I served as a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and Refugee Services. In this capacity, I receive briefings, weekly updates and information not only on executive orders, but also other issues dealing with immigration matters. From 1985 to 1991, I served as the executive director of that USCCB committee.
The first Presidential executive order was signed by President George Washington in April 22, 1793, permitting federal authorities to prosecute American citizens who were interfering with the war between Britain and France. Recently, we learned about many executive orders signed by President Obama in the twilight of his presidency. Most especially, he negated a long-standing policy for Cubans fleeing Castro’s Cuba allowing them, if they could step foot on American territory, to have automatic refugee protection.
Today in Cuba, there still is no freedom. However, leaving that order in place could be an attraction for people to risk their lives coming into the United States. President Obama, who wished a détente with Cuba, rescinded the order to the detriment of the many who were already on the journey and many others who truly need to escape and cannot use the regular immigration law that we have with Cuba.
In addition, President Obama, by executive order, ordered DACA, (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). President Obama also attempted another executive order, DAPA, (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) which would have covered the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The DAPA program never was implemented due to court challenges. President Trump has not rescinded DACA, but will likely not renew it either.
What are some of the issues we are dealing with? First, the campaign policy of then-candidate Trump to build a larger wall between the United States and Mexico is most probably an ill-advised, impossible, and expensive, approach to dealing with the maintainment of the border between the United States and Mexico. The fact is, the United States has the right and obligation to secure its own borders. The wall is simply the wrong approach. One could compare it to killing a fly with a hammer. We already have 700 miles of walls or barriers on the more than 2,000 mile southern border. It is not necessary, as there are other means of policing our border which might be more effective and less expensive.
The real way that undocumented immigration needs to be controlled in the United States is by curtailing the opportunity for these unfortunate people to work in our country. Systems are available, however, employers need undocumented workers and are very much against verifying Social Security numbers. We cannot have it both ways. Of course, our country has a right to maintain its borders, however, we also have a duty to show compassion for those who are working in our country, especially here in New York City, where the Center for Migration Studies estimates that, in 2014, there were 574,542 unauthorized immigrants in New York, the majority of whom are working to maintain our restaurants and construction sites.
The other issue is the temporary ban on immigration from certain majority Muslim countries, certainly an overreaction to the possibility that a refugee might come to the United States as a terrorist or eventually become a terrorist. The estimates of this occurring are one in several hundred million. The extreme vetting of President Trump is an undefined hurdle that is hurting refugees, even Iraqis who assisted the U.S. armed forces. As mentioned above, I directed the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services for over six years and I am aware of the vetting that every refugee must go through. I do not know what could be more extreme. For the most part, the vetting is a two-year process and is carefully carried out by the U.S. Department of State and several other governmental agencies.
Recently, a judge issued judicial intervention in overturning the executive order. As I write this article, I am not sure what the outcome will be, however, this type of executive order will not solve our immigration problems.
Another issue is the defunding of so-called sanctuary cities, one of which is New York City. The term “sanctuary” is a misnomer. However, it does mean that many cities which normally preserve relationship between police and immigrants do not, as a matter of fact, transmit information on undocumented aliens apprehended for minor offenses.
Obviously, these criminals are already known to the federal government through the systems that alerts them to these criminals. Nothing stops the federal government from arresting any perpetrator of major crimes and then deporting that criminal. The threat to defund cities of federal funding is an unproven threat, but perhaps could be difficult to implement. One interesting possibility is an order that would not allow undocumented aliens working in the Social Security system who pay their contributions not to be able to collect any benefits. Truly, this is part of the effort to have people self-deport. Again, my constant thesis is that this is a problem of undocumented workers. For the most part, most undocumented bread earners, and sometimes spouses and children, are coming to our system by work.
When I think of this situation, I cannot help but recall the words of Saint John Paul II who said that the key to the social question is work. How we treat workers truly defines our nation. We cannot on one hand benefit from the work of aliens with or without status, and not offer to them the same support that we give to regular workers such as Social Security and workers compensation, as well as other work benefits.
In speaking about his visit to Lampedusa in 2013, Pope Francis said, “I felt I had to go, I was touched by the news of migrants who had died at sea, who had drowned.”
Certainly, there are many other things that could be said. From the moral perspective, however, we must shy away from policies which when carefully examined exhibit racism, nativism and xenophobia, which is the fear of strangers. The work of the Church is to bring the truth to the public forum.
Hopefully, we can continue to combat ill-conceived immigration restrictions which the majority of the American public does not even support.
Any excursion into this area of policy making will generate many “Letters to the Editor,” however, it is time for me to speak, as I have in the past. The defense of the alien, no matter what their status, is our obligation, since we put out into the deep trying to understand the Lord’s injunction, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”