Throughout the past several months, thousands of unaccompanied Mexican and Central American children, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have attempted to cross the border into the United States. These children are placing their lives at great risk, often facing discrimination, exploitation, abuse, and violence when crossing the border. Sadly, many of these children attempt to escape the extreme violence and poverty found in their home countries in search of a better life, even if the journey means separation from their families.
The recent influx of unaccompanied children highlights the urgent need for the U.S. Congress to address comprehensive immigration reform. Although we are a nation of immigrants, American immigration policy is failing the nation.
The small number of available visas for low-skilled workers seeking employment in the United States does not accurately reflect the labor demand for these positions. Caps on family-based visas and processing delays often keep families apart, which force family members to either “honor their moral commitment to family and migrate to the United States without proper documentation, or wait in the system and face indefinite separation from loved ones” (Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops, 2003). Additionally, poverty, violence, and corruption compel individuals and families to make the difficult choice to leave their home countries, whether policies are in place to support their migration or not.
According to Matthew 25:35, the way we treat the least among us, including the stranger, defines our moral character, which is also defining of our moral character as a nation. But what does “welcoming the stranger” mean practically?
Immigration policy is complex. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the home nation has a right to protect its boundaries and implement immigration enforcement policies. Nations must be able to secure their borders from outside threats and uphold their laws. At the same time, border enforcement policies must respect the dignity of the human person and should not threaten human rights or life.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has indicated that comprehensive immigration reform must provide an earned path to citizenship, restore due process to enforcement policies, provide paths for low-skilled workers to enter the United States, increase the number of family-based visas and reduce family reunification waiting times. Perhaps most importantly we must also address the root causes of migration. These measures must be considered in addition to the implementation of enforcement policies that protect the country.
In June, Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee regarding immigration reform. He spoke about the rampant violence causing people to flee their communities and in some cases send their children unaccompanied to the United States. Questions arose during testimony about the local efforts of the Catholic Church in foreign countries to prevent children and families from flooding to America. The bishop responded that the Church has “a large presence” as it provides assistance to combat poverty and violence in those areas and to encourage families to remain together in their communities, “but unfortunately, limited resources.” The Church needs to continue to be a part of the solution, but federal action is needed to address this critical policy issue in a comprehensive way.
An agreement has not yet been reached to move immigration reform legislation forward in Congress. While the president has said he is reviewing what can be done through executive order, it is, under the Constitution of our Republic, the responsibility of the legislative branch to deliberate and pass what shall be the laws of this nation. The president’s responsibility is to enforce the laws passed by Congress. As the debate continues, we must recognize the rationale of those who take drastic measures to come to the United States, and we must treat all immigrants with the dignity that all humans deserve.
For more resources about immigration, including a 2011 statement from the Michigan bishops, visit http://www.micatholic.org/advocacy/advocacy-issues/immigration/.