The bill is a serious attempt to balance human dignity with the rule of law
On Tuesday, members of the US Senate’s so-called “Gang of Eight” released details of the 1,000-page immigration reform bill they plan to introduce for consideration during this term. The “Gang” includes four Republicans – Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) – and four Democrats – Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), and Michael Bennet (Colo.). The formal name of their bill is the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”
Many provisions of the bill are familiar from earlier efforts at immigration reform, including President George W. Bush’s failed 2007 effort. The abiding issue is finding the right balance between reinforcing the security of the nation’s borders in order to stop the flow of undocumented workers and dealing sensibly with the estimated 11 million who are already here. In recent years, attempts to find that balance have focused on widening the visa system that would allow for temporary migration and residency based on occupation. Such visas would be easier to obtain than so-called ‘green cards,’ which allow for permanent residency. Another important element in the mix is how to deal with young people who were brought here as children and have grown up as Americans.
The term “comprehensive immigration reform” commonly refers to measures that address all of these concerns, and the Gang of Eight proposal certainly fits that description. Specifically, the bill seeks to remedy the current system in four ways: dealing with undocumented workers who are already here; improving security on the border, including surveillance and interdiction; and reforming the current visa system.
Dealing with undocumented workers who are already here is perhaps the most contentious part of the legislation. The bill provides a path to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants who arrived prior to January 1, 2012 and who agree to identify themselves. Immigrants would have to pay a total of $2,000 in fines for entering the country illegally, pay any back taxes owed on their US earnings, remain employed, learn English and pass a criminal background check. Assuming they meet these conditions, immigrants would be permitted to apply for permanent residency after ten years and citizenship three years after that. Young people who had grown up here – the so-called “Dream Act” youth – would be able to apply for permanent residency after five years and citizenship immediately thereafter.
Security and enforcement provisions focus on the border and immigration status verification for employment. $3 billion in additional funding would be allocated to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for hiring 3,500 new border agents and for deploying drones and sensors along the southern border. An additional $1.5 billion would be allocated for new and improved fencing. DHS would be responsible for achieving 100% surveillance of the border within five years, along with a 90% capture rate of people trying to illegally cross the border at certain high-traffic points. Should DHS fail to meet these thresholds, the governments of border states would be given the authority and federal funding necessary to get the job done. US companies would be required to implement the federal “E-verify” system for tracking the immigration status of workers, and all non-citizens who identified themselves would be required to provide a biometric work authorization card before they could be hired. There would be no change to the practice of arresting and deporting undocumented persons who commit crimes on US soil.
In the matter of visa reform, the bill calls for a new guest worker program, the “W-visa,” which would accommodate up to 20,000 low-skilled foreign workers in 2015, 75,000 in 2019, and possibly as high as 200,000 after 2020. Workers allowed under the current H-2A farm worker visa would be capped at 337,000 over three years, and the current H-1B visa for highly skilled workers such as engineers and scientists would be doubled to allow 110,000 foreign workers per year and possibly as many at 180,000 at some point in the future. The system for family visas would also be reformed: all foreign parents, children and spouses of US citizens or permanent residents would be granted visas, while brothers and sisters no longer would.
As expected, the bill is not without critics. In the words of Senator Jeff Flake, a member of the Gang of Eight, “this has something for everybody to hate.” On the left, criticism is centered on the amount of time it would take a current undocumented immigrant to achieve permanent residency and citizenship. For instance, The Campaign for Citizenship, a project of the faith-based PICO National Network, said in a statement, “the proposed legislation falls short by placing unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans who are our neighbors, friends, family and fellow-worshipers.” But the National Council of La Raza, while acknowledging that the bill is not perfect, nevertheless urged support. "I don't think there's anybody out there that can say this is my dream legislation," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at National Council of La Raza, in a quote on the left-leaning Huffington Post. "But I think that it’s important to keep the whole in perspective, and where we’re trying to go."
On the right, criticism is much harsher and the opposition far stiffer. “This bill is legalization first, not enforcement first,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), speaking for many. “The day the bill passes there will be effective amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, with only the same promises we have heard before of enforcement to occur at some later date.” Sessions and those who agree with him want the border completely and verifiably secured before even addressing the issue of the 11 million undocumented immigrants here now. Moreover, they see any path to citizenship as an “amnesty,” or essentially a way for undocumented immigrants to get away with having broken US law.
Much of this criticism is rooted in the nation’s experience of following passage of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, the last true amnesty. That bill, supported and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, immediately legalized over three million undocumented immigrants, without penalty or waiting periods. The bill also required employers to obtain an I-9 certificate attesting to legal work status and promised tightened border security. The borders, however, were not in fact tightened, and the I-9 system soon became a joke. Forged documents were easily obtained, enforcement was minimal, and many companies stopped even attempting to verify the immigration status of their employees. The result has been further waves of illegal immigration leading to the situation we face today.
As always, Catholic citizens are responsible for filtering their opinions about important public issues through the lens of the Church’s teaching. On the issue of immigration, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has much to say. In January, 2003,
the U.S. and Mexican bishops councils jointly published a pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” that draws on CST and applies its principles to the context of the contemporary immigration debate in the United States. The bishops affirmed five core principles that should guide the deliberations of Catholics on this issue. The document states that:
- “Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland. All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.
- “Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.
- “Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.
- “Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.
- “The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected. Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.”
“Strangers No Longer” goes on to say that “the Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights. These teachings complement each other. While the sovereign state may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated. In the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant, the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible. It is through this lens that we assess the current migration reality between the United States and Mexico.”
Given this guidance, how should Catholics assess the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013?” First, we have to recognize that several of the principles identified by the bishops are in tension with one another, at least in the concrete circumstances of legislation. Second, we should acknowledge that a bill like this requires balance, and balance demands compromise. Not by compromising principle, certainly, but by shaping the hard edges of competing priorities in order to accommodate all of our principles, without abandoning any of them. Third, we have to be willing to put aside competing loyalties to ideology, party, and even nation in favor of doing the right thing, as the Church instructs us.
Given these considerations, it is the opinion of this writer that the Gang of Eight proposal meets the test of the principles elaborated by the bishops. The bill preserves the right of asylum seekers to take refuge in this country. It recognizes the fact that immigrants come to this country seeking work in order to support themselves and their families, and provides means by which they may do that. By calling immigrants out into the open and providing a path to citizenship, it acknowledges their human dignity and holds out the promise of legal equality. And it recognizes the sovereign responsibility of the US government to secure our national borders. As in any piece of legislation, there are specific provisions that Catholics may disagree on, and those provisions should be the subject of debate and eventual compromise.
Some will say that this entire issue is best reserved to the “prudential judgment” of the civil authorities. In a sense that is true. Lawmakers should and do have significant latitude in applying the principles of CST within the particular mechanisms of legislative acts. They do not, however, have the right to prudentially elide those principles from their considerations. The Gang of Eight have met that basic test, and perhaps it is for this reason that Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the USCCB’s point man for immigration issues, yesterday said of the proposal, “I commend the Senators who have introduced this bipartisan bill, as they have shown leadership and courage in this effort,” he said. “We will look to work constructively with them and other members of Congress to improve upon their proposal, should such improvements prove necessary, so that any final bill creates an immigration system that restores the rule of law in a humane and just manner.”