Immigration reform can go either wayhelping immigrants and asylum seekers or placing further restrictions on their lives by ever more punitive laws. For several years, Congress has been focused on the latter type of legislation. The most current example is the Real ID Act of 2005. Its three parts coalesce into a frontal assault on the positive sort of approach to immigration favored by the U.S. bishops and other advocates of true immigration reform. The act is attached to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2005, which is to supply funds for tsunami victims and military operations in Iraq.
One part of the act would make it more difficult for those fleeing persecution to find asylum here. Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernadino, Calif.chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migrationwrote on April 25 to the House and Senate conferees on the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, emphasizing that the Real ID Act would have extraordinarily harmful impacts on asylum seekers. Among other destructive provisions, it would allow judges to deny asylum claims if those seeking protection could not provide documents proving the persecutionas if, while fleeing, they could collect such paperwork to bring with them. Another would require them to prove that a central motivation for their persecution lay in factors like political opinion, religion or social group membership.
For undocumented immigrantsan estimated eight to ten million peoplethe Real ID Act would also raise the bar on obtaining driver licenses by denying them to applicants who cannot prove they are in the United States legally. But, as police officials themselves have noted, the purpose of licenses is to make roads safer. Denying them will do the opposite. Immigrants working in areas with little public transportation depend on their cars to reach job sites. With or without licenses, they will continue to drive. Eleven states now issue licenses to immigrants without documentation. As a result, local departments of motor vehicles have immigrants’ photographs, addresses and proof of insurance on fileand thus they remain in view of the authorities.
The third part of the Real ID Act calls for extending the wall along the border between San Diego, Calif., and Mexico. Walls simply divert immigrants into desert areas, where they have been dying at the rate of one a day. Adding to the darkness of the wall’s implications is what Bishop Barnes terms a dangerously broad mandate that the secretary of homeland security waive all laws to expedite the construction of barriers...along the U.S.-Mexican border. Such a mandate would have grave consequences for environmentally fragile areas along the 2,000 miles of border territory.
In contrast to the Real ID Act, Bishop Barnes’s letter concludes with what might be called the positive approach to immigration reform. Legislative changes leading to permanent legal residency and family reunification, along with due process protections so that families are not dividedthese would better serve national security...by bringing immigrants out of the shadows,’ and ensuring that our nation continues to benefit from the contributions of immigrant laborers. How much those contributions are needed can be seen when raids by immigration agents on farm, restaurant and hotel workers leave employers scrambling to find American workers, who are reluctant to take these minimum-wage and physically demanding jobs.
The reform-based thrust of Bishop Barnes’s letter is now reflected more fully in the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, launched on May 10. Called Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope, the campaign involves the U.S.C.C.B. and a number of Catholic agencies in support of a broad legalization program and comprehensive reform of existing lawslike those that negatively affect family reunification. Current policies require, for instance, that legal residents who wish family members to join them find that their relatives in other countries must often wait 10, 15 or even more years before visas become available. Similarly, asylum seekers in search of safety here frequently find themselves behind bars, facing deportation back to the very countries where they suffered persecution.
What the U.S. bishops propose in their Justice for Immigrants campaign is immigration reform in its most positive sensein contrast to the harshly punitive thrust of the Real ID Act. In introducing the campaign, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington observed that its goal is to change laws so that immigrants can support their families, families can remain united, and the human rights of all...respected. This is what real immigration reform means.