Massive rallies around the country demonstrate a groundswell of popular opinion pressing for comprehensive immigration reform. Encouraged by the church, these have been peaceful events by primarily hardworking, family-oriented people. The demonstrators want to see undocumented people given the opportunity to move toward eventual citizenship through legitimate channels and come out of the shadows. Before Congress adjourned for its Easter recess, it looked as though a compromise billthe Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006might result in just such needed reform. The bill would have offered a path to eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 10 million undocumented people in the United States. Right up to April 7, a compromise by the two sides of the debate seemed possible.
What are these two sides? Those on the enforcement side have persisted in promoting ever stricter measures that would go so far as to authorize the erection of a 700-mile-long fence on the Mexican border. In addition, the bill by F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, passed by the House in December would make undocumented persons in the United States de facto felons and could lead to the imposition of criminal sanctions upon those who assist them, including church workers.
On the other side of the debate stand those who recognize that immigrant workers are an economic necessity. During Senate Judiciary Committee testimony on July 26, 2005, in support of comprehensive immigration reform, Bishop Gerald Barnes, chair of the Committee on Migration of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, noted that over half the agricultural labor force is undocumented and subject to abuse and exploitation. Even under our present system, increasing numbers of persons are being deportedmany of them summarilya situation that has led to the breakup of families that in many cases are made up of children who are citizens, born in the United States, one or both of whose parents are undocumented.
The bipartisan compromise offered hope that undocumented people who have been in the United States for five years or more couldunder certain conditionswork for another five and then apply for legal permanent status without leaving the country. A second group, here two to five years, could receive temporary visas to work, but would have to leave the country and return through a port of entry, such as El Paso, within three years. They would be able to apply for green cards in eight to ten years. The third group, in the United States for two years or less, would need to return home; but even these could apply for a temporary work visa from there.
The compromise bill, however, included several negative provisions. Among them were expansions of the expedited removal process and greater use of detention, as well as the provision in the House bill that would make unlawful presence here itself a crime. Additionally, state and local enforcement of immigration laws would be institutionalized. The latter procedure is already in place in two states, Alabama and Florida. There agreements have been made with the Department of Homeland Security to deputize police officers to enforce immigration laws.
Other punitive measures unrelated to the compromise bill increasingly come to the fore. An especially mean-spirited one is a provision of the Deficit Reduction Act meant to prevent the theft of Medicaid benefits by undocumented people. Those making use of Medicaidthe health insurance of the poorwill be obliged as of July 1 to show proof of their American citizenship by producing birth certificates, passports or similar documents. This provision will affect not only undocumented immigrants, however, but also millions of Americans who lack such documents, especially elderly poor people.
Some advocates of positive immigration reform see such measures as a deliberate strategy meant to make the lives of undocumented persons so burdensome that many will opt to return to their own countries of their own accord. Such is the spirit of the Sensenbrenner bill. Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, pointed out to America that the more appropriate strategy would be to work toward incorporating undocumented people into our country. The Senate, once it reaches the conferencing stage with regard to the House bill, should keep this latter goal in mind as both houses look toward the November elections. The enforcement-only members of Congress are at least showing signs of realizing that the huge voting block represented by the rallies can be lost to them if their position does not move more in the direction of comprehensive and fair immigration reform. That is the proper direction.