Put Out into the Deep

Labor Day and Welcoming Immigrants

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Who will kill our chickens or dress our beef? Perhaps this seems a strange question for us on the East Coast, since we are so far away from the processing centers for the chicken we love to buy so cheaply and the beef that today is a bit more expensive. Most of the entry-level difficult work is primarily done by low-paid immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. It is certainly not the dream of American-born people to have their children work in a refrigerator eight to ten hours per day. The history of our country has been built on entry-level immigrant labor, and before that, unfortunately, on slave labor.

It would be great if there were no low-paying difficult jobs people needed in our economy. Today, unfortunately, these jobs still exist. And most of these jobs are filled by immigrants in various stages of legal status. As we celebrate our national commemoration of Labor Day, we stop and think of the human labor that has made our country so great, especially union organizing that made our workplaces safer and wages livable. The policy of the U.S. bishops has always been to advocate for a living wage. Not so much targeted to a particular number, but one that would allow a person to work one job and be able to support a family with that wage. Today, it is common that both spouses need to work to make ends meet. This is certainly not ideal, however, at the same time, it is a necessity in today’s society, and one which has become more than commonplace.

We have seen already an assault on immigrants by the massive roundup of the undocumented in Mississippi where many of the chicken processing plants are located. More than 600 people were rounded up, but only 300 people were held. Perhaps those not held were documented or even U.S. citizens by this time. The policy of intolerance toward immigrants is not new, and one, unfortunately, part of our national history.

These recent changes in the new public charge of regulations by the administration would preclude anyone who takes public benefits from someday becoming a U.S. citizen.

The rule of “public charge” has long been part of the immigration law, even from the beginning of the 20th century. Clearly, it was the intention of our lawmakers that once you come to this country, you should make it on your own. Unfortunately, an official mimicked the Statue of Liberty poem by Emma Lazarus stating that we want immigrants who can “stand on one’s two feet.” Our immigrants, indeed, stand on two feet and bend their backs in various areas of labor; from the fields to processing plants and to factories.

Almost all immigrants come to this country with the idea that they must work in order to get ahead. The social safety net that our society provides today is much better than that which our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents faced at the beginning of the last century. Clearly, it was the Scriptural quotation that “he who would not work should not eat” that motivated lawmakers. This certainly was indicative of our society. Over the years, we have constructed a social safety net which assures every one of the minimum in food, housing and medical services. It would be valuable to those most in need if this social safety net was even stronger. It must be supported, however, by those who work and all should be, except in exceptional circumstances, called to participate in society by their labor.

The latest rule, perhaps, has various motivations. First, to keep people from becoming U.S. citizens and voting, perhaps saving jobs for American-born people, and saving taxpayer money has also been said. By depriving our entry-level workers of a social safety net, we are becoming a society that knows no compassion and takes advantage of the vulnerable.

The history of our anti-immigrant feelings in this country has ebbed and flowed. Recently, Cardinal Dolan sent me a book written by Daniel Okrent, which I am reading with great enthusiasm, entitled “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America.” The book is the history of the 1924 anti-immigration law and beyond. Our country has in the past engaged in anti-immigrant sentiments for various reasons. Some had the motivation of outright bigotry, while others sought to protect the American-born stock by the long-disproved laws of eugenics.

Today, we are in a similar situation that some feel our society is changing; others realize that it has already changed and that the browning of America has already happened. No longer in the future will the Caucasian race be the dominant race in the United States.

These misguided feelings sometimes have influenced our immigration policy. The border policy now has shown that detention is being used as a deterrent for people seeking asylum, who come from places where they are fearful for their lives or where violence has driven them to take a torturous journey to the United States. Where once we were the beacon of hope for the world, we have now become the inevitable guarded and closed gate.

Our policy on Temporary Protective Status has eroded and now we may see this being taken away from Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans, Nepalese and Sudanese. Also, the presidential declaration on refugee admissions for the coming year states that we should receive “no” refugees. Each year, the president must declare the number of refugees that the United States is open to receive. Certainly, in this administration, and even before, the number of acceptance of refugees from around the world has diminished. The U.S., fortunately in the past, always set the tone as the beacon of hope with the greatest generosity of any country around the world for permanent resettlement. We see this eroded, however, to ground zero.

Certainly, there is a moral issue here. Each time I write a column on migration, we receive many letters criticizing this intrusion into public policy. The nexus of public policy and morality here is very clear; the Church has had a clear policy on migration from the beginning of the 20th century. The Church has stated that nations have a right to sovereignty and to police their borders. While at the same time, nations must exercise generosity in accepting those who are truly in need.

The Church has also always stated that it is best if people do not migrate if they have the ability to stay in their own country and receive the necessities of life in their home. Therefore, this might influence our foreign policy where we can assist countries in helping their own and keeping them from migrating.

Unfortunately, we see that this moral issue is not taken into account. Rather, it is blurred by racist overtones. Law enforcement seems to center on migrants and not the employers who knowingly hire those they need to work at their processing plants and factories. If resources were given to policing the workplace, I am sure we would stem much of the undocumented migration and enable us to be more generous to receiving those in line for legal migration.

As we look back on history and put out into the deep waters of the heritage of our nation as a land of immigrants, while also at the same time a land where racism periodically rears its ugly head, we must recognize that besides the original sin of slavery we still struggle with welcoming newcomers from any land. Labor Day reminds us that America was built by foreign-born and domestic labor. And this most probably will be the path to the future. We need to align our thinking and public policies with a moral compass that points to the reasoned and generous welcoming of a stranger.


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