Conference spotlights Church’s call for ‘comprehensive, just’ immigration reform
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — “Welcoming the Stranger” is a message that has long been taught by the Catholic Church. As the sky darkened overhead on Feb. 4, men and women, old and young, gathered in St. Francis Xavier Church for a Mass to begin a Catholic Social Teaching Conference on Immigration co-sponsored by the Human Rights and Social Justice offices of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, and held at Rockhurst University.
Bishop George Murry
The Mass was concelebrated by Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn and Bishop George Murry, S.J., of Youngstown, Ohio, with priests and deacons from both Missouri and Kansas assisting.
In his homily (p.4) Bishop Finn reminded the congregation that “Scripture’s call to hospitality has a particularly poignant application for our reflection in this teaching conference on the church’s principles concerning the care of migrant people.” He referred to the Old Testament account of Abraham welcoming the mysterious Angels of the Lord. Abraham’s hospitality was rewarded by the birth of Isaac, born long after Abraham and his wife Sarah had given up hope of ever having a child.
“Abraham passed God’s test,” Bishop Finn said. “He welcomed the strangers, realizing as did the Bedouins of the day, that to neglect to do so was to abandon fellow wayfarers to be consumed by the desert. More than providing minimal shelter, Abraham and Sarah received the visitors warmly as friends. Though they were different and unknown, the guests were received as valued persons.”
He quoted from several New Testament accounts in which Christ repeatedly affirmed the connection between peoples as brothers and sisters. “‘What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.’” Jesus identified himself with his disciples and others under attack. “The clear teaching,” the bishop said, “is that every person has a God-given dignity, and inestimable and irrevocable value as a son or daughter of the Eternal Father — as one identified with Christ Himself — regardless of race or language or nationality or status. All are ennobled as part of Christ; as ‘Alter Christus,’ ‘other Christs,’ or as one modern day saint insists ‘Ipse Christus’ ‘Christ Himself.’ What we do; what we fail to do — this is for Christ.”
Bishop Finn said that often he has been asked by “good people concerning undocumented brothers and sisters, ‘Bishop, they are breaking the law. How can you support them when they are breaking the law?’”
Immigration and the law have been subjects of argument for more than a century. But Bishop Finn suggested that the Catholic faith “tells us how to look at each other. The work of justice is broad and directed toward the good order of society. Let us affirm the prerogative and responsibility of nations to set the laws to maintain their sovereignty and to define the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. At the same time this mystery of the innate goodness of each person — requires us to put hatred and suspicion aside as we encounter the migrant.”
Kansas City residents “encounter the migrant” every day, in the workplace, in schools, restaurants and retail stores. In fact, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as of Oct. 2010, 215, 214 immigrants reside in Missouri, of which 40.5 percent are naturalized citizens. Kansas is home to 164,118 immigrants, of which 36.5 percent are naturalized. Although many people immediately think of Mexicans when the subject of legal and illegal immigrants is mentioned, there are many more nationalities represented by the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States. The USCCB estimates that 60 percent of these immigrants are from Mexico, another 20 percent from other Latin American countries, 11 percent come from South and East Asia and other immigrants come from Africa, Canada, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Ireland.
Bishop Murry delivered the keynote address to about 200 conference attendees that evening, and expanded on those figures.
“The Catholic Church in the United States is a church of immigrants,” he said. In the early years of the 20th century, immigrants made up most of the population of Catholics in the U.S., including Irish, Italian, German, Lithuanian, Ruthenian, and Mexican. Other newcomers included Chinese and Indians.
Although policies regarding immigration were in place as early as 1790, prior to 1870, Bishop Murry said, the federal government did little to restrict immigration. Immigrants usually arrived in search of work or a better life and simply settled in, becoming citizens after a period of time. Restrictive laws were passed in 1875 and in 1882, restricting the immigration of Chinese and Asian laborers and women. However, non-Asian immigrants were not significantly restricted until the 1920s, and by then, Bishop Murry said, “many of our immigrant ancestors had already arrived.”
They arrived from various parts of the world in droves; by 1870, 40 percent of the residents of New York, Chicago and other major metropolitan areas were foreign born. In 1921, the U.S. began to restrict immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 required national origins quotas. The quota system was revised multiple times over the years, putting different regions of the world at a disadvantage at certain points. The quota system was finally abolished in 1965, and family-based immigration was prioritized. Later laws were increasingly restrictive. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it unlawful to knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants and, in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act created penalties for those who had been “unlawfully present” in the country, establishing three and ten year bars to legal reentry.
The USCCB cited two surveys of unauthorized immigrants which indicated that 98 percent would prefer to live and work lawfully, rather than in unauthorized status. Echoing Bishop Finn’s remarks about immigrants breaking the law when they arrive unauthorized, Bishop Murry said that there are many facts and just as many myths as to why they don’t come here legally. “Why don’t they stand in line to come here? No line for them to stand in exists,” he said.
Under current immigration laws, authorized immigration is restricted to a few narrow categories of persons: they must have a family member legally residing in the United States who can apply for them to enter legally, they must be fleeing persecution to qualify for asylum, or they must hold advanced degrees and work in high-skill professions to qualify for work-sponsored legal permanent residency.
He cited a report by Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, which indicated that in 2008, 12.7 million immigrants from Mexico were living in the U.S., and about 50 percent were unauthorized. Most arrived in 1990 or later. The median age of the Mexican immigrant is 25 compared to 36 for U.S. residents in general. More than 60 percent speak English proficiently, but they have a lower level of education than the median level attained by other Hispanics and U.S. residents in general. Many have not finished high school. Bishop Murry said many Mexican immigrants are very poor — 22.8 percent live in poverty, compared with 20 percent of other Hispanics and 12.7 percent of U.S. residents overall. The majority work in entry level jobs, cleaning services, restaurants or doing odd jobs in meatpacking plants, carpentry, gardening, drywall, bricklaying and roofing. They are unable to move up the ladder because of their lack of education, so they simply maintain what they do have. The majority do not have any health insurance.
He said that the facts underline the need to reform current U.S. legal immigration policies. The laws must be reformed to meet the nation’s need for labor, as well as facilitate the reunification of families who were separated when a parent emigrated to the U.S. to find work. The family issue is one of great importance to the bishop’s conference, Bishop Murry added.
He continued, “The only way to reduce the number of newcomers coming to the U.S. illegally is to improve social and economic conditions in places such as Mexico and Central America, so that immigration is a choice rather than a necessity.”
In 2004, the board of directors of the USCCB Committee on Migration joined with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., to start a major push toward immigration reform. Bishop Murry served on that committee. He said that he and other bishops have been arguing not for open borders, but for comprehensive and just reform that includes a program or path to citizenship for immigrant families; a new worker visa program that protects both U.S. and foreign workers; reduction of waiting periods in the family-based system (currently 3-19 years) to reunify families and restoration of due process legal protection for immigrants.
“Working together and committing to the defense of human life and committing to justice, we must encourage our political leaders to proclaim a year of favor from God and find better ways to welcome the stranger,” he said. “Not only welcome the stranger, but allow that stranger to become a full member, a full participant in American society.”
The conference continued Saturday morning with panels of immigrants and immigrant aid agencies. The immigrants shared their personal stories. Aid agency and social service ministry representatives discussed their efforts to provide direct services and assistance to immigrant clients and parishioners. InterServ, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Westside Can Center, Mattie Rhoades Center, Bishop Sullivan Center, Legal Aid Migrant Farmworkers Project, Jewish Vocational Services and several immigration law offices were some of the agencies represented.
One of the highest profile issues surrounding the recent immigration reform debate was the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act was proposed as a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrant parents who were brought to the U.S. at a very young age. The act would provide a path to conditional permanent legal resident status to those who were brought into the country by their parents, have lived here for more than five years, stayed out of trouble, completed high school or GED and who commit to attending college or military service. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation in early Dec. 2010, but the bill failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance to the Senate. It was blocked by filibuster.
Angela Ferguson, an immigration defense attorney, said the current political environment is not conducive to immigration reform. “Nativism and xenophobia are very powerful during mid-term election years. Those attitudes are reciprocated by the immigrant population who share an innate suspicion of government,” she said.
Some of that suspicion stems from immigrant experience. One woman, who entered this country without authorization some years ago and asked to remain anonymous, shared her story with The Catholic Key.
“I was 19, a single mom and my son was six months old. We lived with my parents. One morning my son woke up screaming. His knee was swollen and getting bigger. We could do nothing to help him. My parents sold their house and their truck to put him in the hospital. It did no good. The doctors told me there was nothing they could do; he would never be able to walk. He was just six months old! I talked to my sister and we decided I must bring my son to America and see an American doctor. She knew a woman who loaned me a green card and I came to Kansas City. I put my son in Children’s Mercy Hospital. Eight months later he was OK.” A smile lit up her face, remembering the joy of his recovery.
“I wanted to find a job and make money to return to Mexico. I went to California and found a job in a restaurant. Then I met my husband. California is very expensive for rent and food, so we decided to move somewhere else. He is from Guatemala. He didn’t want to go to Mexico and I didn’t want to go to Guatemala, so we came back to Kansas City. I found work in a restaurant and he found a job and we both worked very hard. We had twins and then later two more children. We sent all our children to Catholic grade school.”
The neighborhood was different when more parents had the money to send their children to a nearby Catholic school, she said. Now they don’t. “Parents may work 16 hours every day at two jobs to pay rent and buy food. They cannot find the time to raise their children in Catholic values. Now gangs are very common. Some gang members are very young, fourth graders! We have had car thefts and broken windows in our church parking lot, during Mass.” She shook her head rapidly, as though to dismiss those thoughts for the moment.
“When I was growing up Catholic values were part of my life. In Mexico the school of religion is part of daily life. Going to the school of religion before or after Mass on Sunday was required; we knew we would go. Some of our friends went to public school but we all went to the school of religion on Sunday. Now when I am unhappy or worried, I remember where I came from and it helps me.”
She recalled 2005 as a very difficult year. Her oldest son entered high school. One of her twin sons suffered a stroke at the age of 11, which left him partially paralyzed.
A year later, she was robbed at gunpoint in a store, and while not physically injured, she needed counseling to overcome her fear and distress. She and her husband sought help from Bishop Sullivan Center, and they were referred to an attorney for legal advice and Mattie Rhoades Center for therapy and counseling. The attorney told them about the U Visa, a visa available to immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, who are the victims of certain serious crimes. Victims must have cooperated with authorities in the prosecution of the perpetrator. An immigrant granted a U Visa or I-360 Petition will then be given legal status to reside and work in the United States. Spouses and children under the age of 21, and other family members under the age of 18 may be applied for also.
“I am now in the process of becoming a citizen. I am waiting for approval for the U Visa. I work hard and try to be legal in any way I can. We have heard nothing bad from immigration, so I am very hopeful,” she said.
Her four younger children are U.S. citizens by birth. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution affirms that, with very few exceptions, all persons born in the United States are citizens, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
While she waits for approval for the U Visa, she works and volunteers for her parish. Her husband works and her younger children go to grade and high school. Her oldest son, who turned 21 last year, stays home, frustrated and depressed because of his status as a non-citizen. He is unable to find a job because he doesn’t have a Social Security number, and he cannot obtain a driver’s license without a birth certificate and social security number. “He cannot go to a public college,” she said, “because he has no birth certificate for social security number, so he cannot even apply to go. He could maybe go to a Catholic college, but we can’t afford that.”
He made few friends in high school because, his mother remembered, his classmates began talking about permits and driver’s licenses as young as age 14. He didn’t want them to know his non-citizen status and so he “separated from them.”
One of the twins has his driver’s license, and he runs errands a lot, she said. My older son thinks I don’t trust him to do the things I need him to do but I am afraid for him to drive or go anywhere in a car because the police might stop him. We hear awful stories of raids.”
Immigration and Naturalization Services received the paperwork for her visa application on Oct. 20, a week before her son turned 21. She is hopeful that in a few months, she will receive the approved Visa and at last be able to work and live legally in Kansas City, and so will her husband and oldest son. “That will change everything. For now I can say, ‘I’m in the process,’” she said.
Jude Huntz, director of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Office of Human Rights, and director of the immigration conference, met with Bishop Finn on Feb. 7 to discuss planning for an annual conference on Catholic Teaching. The conference for next year will be in the fall.