My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The current politicization of the issue of undocumented workers in our country is truly unfortunate. It is a social problem that demands our attention and one that needs a solution, but not an issue that can be solved without addressing the racist and xenophobic tendencies that lay below the veneer of even just societies.
My approach will not be a religious one, although certainly Scripture gives us much to think about when it comes to treating the alien workers in our midst. The Book of Deuteronomy makes it clear to the Israelites that they should not abuse the alien workers and that they should leave a portion of the harvest for those workers, reminding them that they, themselves, in prior centuries had been aliens in the land of Egypt.
I base this defense of immigrant workers on past research and present analysis of this issue that comes from understanding the labor shortages which our Nation experiences in various sectors; for example, in agriculture, construction and the service industries. Honest workers deserve to be defended because first of all they contribute to our society and economy, and secondly, because they are human beings with dignity, rights and responsibilities.
The issue of illegality is one that is exploited and misunderstood. Undocumented immigrants have either entered without inspection or, more commonly in recent years, have over- stayed or otherwise violated the terms of their temporary visas by working with false documents. As human beings, they cannot be “illegal.” Moreover, they do honest work that is needed by our society.
During the late 1980s, I produced one of the first profiles of undocumented immigrants funded by the U.S. Department of Labor as a dissertation. I found that in the New York metropolitan area, the vast majority of undocumented workers had Social Security taken from their earnings. This practice continues today. In fact, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration has reported that unauthorized workers make an annual net contribution of $12 billion annually to Social Security, but most of them will never collect Social Security benefits. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculated that undocumented immigrants pay $11.6 billion per year in income, sales and property taxes. Yet, these workers were and are almost invisible in the workforce since they work side-by-side with U.S. citizens, legal residents and other undocumented peoples. The need for labor in our society seems to have made no distinction as to its source. Most employers treat their workers decently and observe the laws, although the business model of some depends on the exploitation of vulnerable immigrants.
It seems to be a war cry today, “My ancestors came here legally, why have these people come illegally?” A brief review of our immigration history recognizes that until 1924, with exceptions for the Chinese and a few other groups, there were no legal immigration restrictions under U.S. law and, thus, no undocumented immigrants as we understand that term. Prior to that, immigrants needed only to have a sponsor who guaranteed that they would not become a public charge and to meet public health requirements. Today, we still welcome immigrant workers who fill important jobs. However, we do not offer sufficient legal opportunities for necessary workers to enter the nation. Most of the resulting immigration violations involve breaches of civil law, not criminal offenses. This distinction must be kept.
It has become very clear, thanks to a recent study in the Journal on Migration and Human Security, entitled “U.S. Undocumented Population Drops Below 11 Million in 2014,” that the undocumented population has been falling for the last eight years, driven by declines in the Mexican undocumented population. This trend is due to many factors, including the limited availability of certain jobs. Today, because of surplus workers in some areas and some restrictive laws, many of the undocumented have returned to their countries of origin.
However, the situation of the potential beneficiaries for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is quite different. Most persons who have settled in the U.S. for a considerable period of time and have U.S.-born children or young people who were brought here as children are integrated into society and would have great difficulty in returning to their countries of birth. In the case of parents, either they must return to their home country and leave their children, or remain in the U.S. with their children to uphold family unity.
Over the course of U.S. history, our political system has regularly recognized that certain groups who do not fit within our legal immigration categories should nonetheless be able to legalize their status. There are two general ways that undocumented persons who do not qualify for a visa can regularize their status. The first, cancellation of removal, applies to persons facing deportation. It covers persons of good moral character who have been here continuously for at least ten years, and whose removal would create an “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to certain close family members who are citizens or lawful permanent residents.
The second, called registry, applies to very long-term and continuous residents – i.e., those who arrived prior to Jan. 1, 1972 – who also meet good moral character and other criteria. The registry cut-off date has been advanced several times since the 1920s, but not in the 30 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Registry is a little remembered part of the immigration law that has its origin in an attempt to find a way to regularize the status or “register” those who did not qualify under the first legal immigration laws or quota system of the 1920s. These included seamen who jumped ship. Advancing the registry cut-off date on a rolling basis would regularize many of those who are the parents of U.S.-born citizens and who have some deep roots in our society.
A problem to be faced is the eventual path for citizenship. To exclude the undocumented from citizenship would be to return to a two-tiered society. We have enough experience with the exclusion of former slaves and their descendants to remind us that those who are members in our society should never be excluded from the full rights of citizenship. There are various means on how this can be accomplished.
It is important that we look legally and logically at the present situation. Those who are in favor of mass deportation, seem not to have an understanding of what this might mean for our reputation, and the lives of those who are deported. These estimated costs of mass deportation would be $400 billion and reduce the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by about $1 trillion.
We must put out into the deep recesses of our memory as a nation built by immigrants. We cannot forget the contributions of the past nor the present made by new Americans in building our society and our Church.