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The immigration reform debate has generated discussion about the impact of immigrants on our country. However, while there has been much talk about the economic, social and enforcement aspects of the issue, there has been not enough on the fact that immigration is a humanitarian and, ultimately, moral issue as well. The Congressional recess offers a time for heads to clear and to see this issue as a preeminent moral issue for the nation.
Each day we see the human consequences of an immigration system. Families are separated; migrants exploited by unscrupulous employers and smugglers; and human beings, desperate to survive, perish in the American desert. Moreover, as our nation benefits from the work of undocumented workers, we do not extend them basic workplace or legal protections and at the same time scapegoat them for our social ills.
The U.S. bishops hold that the 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. This suggests a more comprehensive approach, which reforms all aspects of the system.
It is worth considering how the U.S. immigration policy actually encourages illegal immigration. As the federal government has spent billions on border enforcement the past 15 years, the number of undocumented in the nation has more than doubled. The fence cannot hold back people desperate for jobs, and people know that once the undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States, almost 80 percent of the male migrant workers find jobs with U.S. companies.
This powerful magnet of available employment induces the flow of immigrants. To compound matters, U.S. immigration law fails to provide legal channels for these workers to migrate safely and legally. Work visas for low-skilled workers are absurdly small compared to demand – 5,000 per year in the permanent system and 66,000 per year in the temporary one. Family unity visas can be even scarcer, with waiting times as long as 10 years for Mexican immediate family members to be reunited.
Second, we must consider both the intent and effect of undocumented immigration. The intent of immigrant workers is to work and support their families. The effect is that they support the U.S. economy by working in industries in need of laborers.
Leaders in the home building industry estimate that, if the undocumented workforce left the U.S., housing construction would be delayed six to eight months and costs would increase 30 to 40 percent. In the health care industry, immigrant workers are relied on heavily to provide care to the elderly and other infirm patients. According to the Department of Labor, the demand for foreign-born workers in these industries and others will increase dramatically in the years ahead.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a humane solution to our immigration crisis. 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 deaths of migrants who die in the desert.
Elected officials must examine the root causes of migration and work with sending countries to create jobs for migrants in their home communities. This is the long-term solution to our immigration crisis that the erection of a 700-mile border fence, recently passed by Congress, will not provide.
The issue of immigration elicits strong opinions and emotions on both sides.
The Congressional recess offers people a time to clear their heads, to tone down the rhetoric and focus on solutions. We need a bill that creates an immigration system that upholds values Americans cherish—hard work, opportunity and compassion.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.