According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 11.2 million unauthorized persons residing in the United States.
Each year, approximately 300,000 more unauthorized immigrants enter the country. In large part, these immigrants feel compelled to enter by either the explicit or implicit promise of employment in the American agriculture, construction, service and other industries. Most of this unauthorized flow comes from Mexico, a nation struggling with severe poverty.
Survival has thus become the primary impetus for unauthorized immigration flow into the United States. Today’s unauthorized immigrants are largely low-skilled workers who come to the United States for work to support their families. During the past several decades, the demand by U.S. businesses, large and small, for low-skilled workers has grown exponentially, while the supply of available workers for low-skilled jobs has diminished. Yet, there are only 5,000 green cards available annually for low-skilled workers to enter the United States lawfully to live and work. The only alternative to this is for them to get a temporary work visa. At their current numbers, these are woefully insufficient to provide legal means for the foreign-born to enter the United States to live and work, and thereby meet our country’s demand for foreign-born labor.
In light of all this, many consider the prospect of being apprehended for crossing illegally into the United States a necessary risk. Even after being arrested and deported, reports indicate that many immigrants attempt to re-enter our country.
The national immigration debate has generated much discussion about this critical issue of immigrants on our land. While there has been much talk about the economic, social and enforcement aspects of this issue, we also should understand that immigration is a humanitarian, and ultimately a moral issue, as well. In order to see the full picture, we must examine the impact that a broken immigration system has on our fellow human beings — the migrants themselves.
Each day our social service workers, churches, hospitals and schools face the human consequences that are apparent in a faulty immigration system. Families are separated; migrants are exploited by unscrupulous employers and smugglers, and immigrants, desperate to survive, perish as they try to cross the border.
Because of its harmful impact on human life and dignity, the U.S. bishops have stated that the status quo is immoral and have called for comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration system. The bishops’ prescription for mending the system is to emphasize legality over illegality through the creation of legal avenues for migration and the extension of legal status and a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants in the United States. This position we hold is the most effective, humane and practical approach to solving our immigration crisis.
Given these realities, it is important that the U.S. immigration system be changed to reflect the contributions of immigrant workers and to protect their rights. By providing undocumented workers with legal status and a path to citizenship, they would be better able to assert their rights in the workplace, thus improving working conditions and wages for all workers, including those who are U.S.-born.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a humane solution to our immigration crisis because it enables immigrants and their families to remain together and to fully contribute their talents to their communities without fear. It also would help reduce the death of migrants who die as they try to cross our deserts.
As we consider our broken immigration system, our elected officials must also examine the root causes of migration here. Lawmakers must work with other countries so they create jobs that will keep people in their homelands. This is a long-term solution to our immigration crisis that will solve the problems that putting up a fence along our borders won’t.
The issue of immigration elicits strong opinions and emotions from all sides. Now is time to tone down the rhetoric and focus on solutions. It is imperative that both parties in Congress work hard to produce a bill that creates an immigration system predicated on the rule of law, but that upholds the values that all Americans cherish — hard work, opportunity, responsibility, sharing, caring and compassion.
Michael Pfeifer is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo.