Migration is a word heard with ever greater frequency, and I heard a lot about its many aspects—mostly painful ones—during a three-day conference last June at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Representatives from Fairfield and some 20 other Jesuit institutions, including several from Mexico and Central America, gathered to brainstorm on the theme of migration in the areas of research, curriculum and advocacy. A combination of these three approaches, it is hoped, could lead to ways to address proactively one of the major issues of our time through a network of Jesuit colleges and universities.
Here in the United States, the primary issue is not so much migration as immigration—especially the struggle of impoverished or persecuted people to reach our shores as a safe haven where they can provide for themselves and their families, free from the destitution and the persecution many have experienced in their own countries. But given the ever-stricter measures taken by the government in the post-9/11 period, immigrants are finding it harder to enter and gain a foothold. And if they succeed in this, what awaits them may well be detention and eventual deportation back to the very countries from which they fled.
One speaker, for example—Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Immigration Network, a service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—pointed out that the number of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers held in detention facilities has increased sharply over the past few years. The situation “tracks what is happening in our criminal justice system,” he said.
Those who manage to enter and find work can easily fall prey to unscrupulous employers ready to take advantage of their irregular status. A union representative present at the conference spoke of employers who “wink” in hiring immigrants they know to be undocumented. Needing a steady supply of workers for the kinds of jobs many Americans shun—in agriculture, the hotel and restaurant industry, and processing plants for meat and poultry—employers hire them aware that if they complain about poor working conditions or low pay, a call to the immigration authorities quickly results in their removal and probable deportation. Immigrants forced to return to their own countries often leave behind American-born children who hold U.S. citizenship. The breaking up of families has become an increasingly common consequence of our anti-immigrant laws, a result that the U.S. bishops have repeatedly condemned.
Will our immigration laws eventually change in a way more favorable to immigrants? Alex Aleinikoff, dean of the Georgetown University Law Center, said that some of our newer statutes, like the recently passed Real I.D. Act, are little more than attacks on undocumented immigrants in the guise of security measures. In contrast, legislation like the pending McCain-Kennedy bill would be a step in the direction of some form of legalization, but its passage, he said, is in doubt as fear of terrorism increases.
In the meantime, exploitation continues. Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., the keynote speaker, mentioned the earnings that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, send back to their family members. A member of the U.N. Global Commission on Migration, Bishop DeMarzio gave the example of El Salvador—remittances sent there are almost as great as its gross national product. But just as “coyotes” take advantage of immigrants determined to come here—whatever the risks—so do big companies like Western Union, charging exorbitant rates for handling the remittances. Western Union has been sued over its charges.
Refugees also account for much of the growing migration patterns. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., one of the country’s leading experts on immigration and one of the Fairfield conference’s organizers, spoke of whole generations of refugees growing up in camps, where they are severely limited in education, work opportunities and freedom of movement. Equally painful, he said, is the plight of internally displaced persons, people who—forced from their homes by civil violence but unable to cross over into other countries and thereby gain refugee status—remain trapped within their own borders in lives of wandering destitution.
With migration now one of the five apostolic priorities of the Society of Jesus worldwide, the newly established network of Jesuit colleges and universities marks a positive step in addressing a phenomenon that is changing the human face of the planet. At present, it is a face deeply marked by forms of suffering that are largely preventable.