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By Cardinal Roger Mahony
Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles
Sunday on the National Mall, tens of thousands of persons from across the nation will gather to call upon President Obama and Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. I will be one of them.
Our task will not be an easy one, as the present political culture does not lend itself to addressing controversial yet urgent issues such as immigration. Our cause, however, is right and true, not only for millions of immigrants in our country, but for the welfare of the nation.
Public questions of how immigrants impact our economy and culture are appropriate and should be considered by our elected officials. To date, these concerns have dominated our national immigration debate, but we should already know the answer. Our history has shown that immigrants have helped build this diverse nation into the greatest democracy and superpower in the world.
The ultimate and determinative question for our country, much less discussed, is whether we should embrace or reject the immigrant heritage that has served us so well.
Right now, the trend is disturbing. For the past 20 years, we have pursued enforcement-only policies which have not significantly stymied illegal entry into the country. Since 2000, for example, we have spent over $100 billion on immigration enforcement. During the same period, the number of undocumented persons has grown from 7 million to 11 million.
Our legal immigration system, basically ignored by Congress for nearly 50 years, is outmoded and inadequate to our future labor needs, especially when the economy recovers. There are simply not enough visas for unskilled workers to come legally. The family-based immigration system, which has helped immigrant families remain together and thrive for decades, is unworkable and now keeps families apart.
The combined effect of these policies has negatively impacted immigrant communities, including their legal resident and U.S. citizen members.
What is truly at stake in the immigration debate can be best articulated by the young people who have experienced the pain of a broken system.
Consider what happened to little Gabby, a U.S. citizen whose father was taken from their home at 5 a.m. when she was nine. Now 14, instead of playing with her friends she takes care of her baby brothers while her mother tries to make ends meet.
Gabby prays that Congress and the President enact immigration reform, so that she can once again feel the warmth of her father’s embrace and never again have nightmares that she will be left alone. Her fear is shared by about 4 million U.S. citizen children living in immigrant families who dread the day that their parents may be taken from them.
Or take the story of Raul, a university student who was brought to this country when he was one year old. Through no fault of his own, he is undocumented and his future is now in limbo. He told me that he wants to be known as a human being who works hard and contributes to society, not as someone who would harm anyone, as some of the politicians might say.
Instead of investing in these young persons as future leaders, we are instead alienating them and causing them to question the values of America, the only homeland they have ever known.
And why shouldn’t they question our values given the current state of affairs? Perhaps most troubling in all of this is how our immigration system has lessened us as a nation and stained our national character.
We now live in a society that has accepted de facto the presence of a permanent underclass in our society, without equal rights or protection under the law. This is a current reality our founding fathers sought arduously to avoid. As a moral matter, we should no longer tolerate a system which preys upon the vulnerability of our fellow human beings and benefits from their labor, yet fails to guarantee their basic human rights.
The rally today is not only about changing our national immigration laws, but about the future of our country. It is not as much about immigrants as about us, the American citizenry, and the type of society we want future generations to inherit.
We can return to our tradition as a nation of immigrants and welcome and invest in them, or we can continue to turn inward to the detriment of our own interests.
It is our choice. I pray we make the right one.
The writer is the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles.