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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | author
Mar 03, 2011
Filed under Featured

Hierarchical disconnect

Why some Catholics disagree with their bishops on immigration . . .

Gladis came to the United States from Ecuador 16 years ago. She remembers it well because she left her newborn son Giovanni behind. There was money to feed the family, but none to buy a house or build a future of any kind. It was a heart-breaking decision for the young mother. She took a bus north, and then paid someone to smuggle her into the U.S. illegally.

“I saw no future in Ecuador. We had a few cousins in New York, and they said it was better to come here for work. I took the decision to leave for my son Giovanni,” she said. “For years, I kept imagining that I would hear him say ‘Mama’ or feel him touching my leg, but then I would turn around and no one was there.”


As Americans continue to debate the broken immigration system, people like Gladis listen cautiously. She and her husband and children are all in the U.S. now after obtaining permanent visas through employer sponsorship. After 12 years, Gladis was reunited with Giovanni.

But not everyone’s story has a happy ending. There are 10-11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Approximately 450,000 new undocumented immigrants arrive every year. Most come from Mexico, followed by Central American and Asian countries.

Conservative groups like Grassfire Nation, the American Immigration Control Foundation and Minuteman want tighter border security, work-place raids, identity cards, and deportation of illegals. They say these policies will convince illegal aliens to leave on their own. The recent DREAM Act, which failed in Congress, would have given permanent resident status to young illegals if they went to college or enrolled in the military for two years.

Rep. Thomas Rooney

“Immigration reform must start with securing our borders, upholding the law and rewarding those who follow the rules,” said Rep. Thomas Rooney (R-FL), a Catholic.

“The DREAM Act would provide an incentive for individuals to come here illegally, undermine the rule of law, and move rule-breakers to the front of the line,” he said in a statement. “I strongly oppose provisions that would make students who are here illegally eligible for in-state tuition breaks. Taxpayer money should absolutely not subsidize the higher education of illegal immigrants.”

Other groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, believe that illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity to become legal. Community, labor and religious organizations like We Are America Alliance, Border Angels and American Immigration Lawyers Association believe in various forms of amnesty.

The human toll

While the Church teaches that nations have the right to secure their borders, the Church’s long history of helping immigrants gives her an unmatched depth of understanding of immigration’s human toll. In fact, there are 158 Catholic immigration legal services across the country under the auspices of Catholic bishops.

Archbishop Jose Gomez

Many faithful Catholics, however, remain at odds with the hierarchy on the issue of how to deal with illegal immigrants. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, chair of the USCCB’s committee on migration, believes that any comprehensive immigration reform must start by looking at the human person.

“We’re looking for respect for the dignity of the human person,” he told Legatus Magazine. “The second aspect is the importance of family unity.We need to address the reality of the 11 million undocumented people in our country.We need to find a solution to help them get their documents. There is no other way for them to become active members of society — and deportation is not appropriate.”

The U.S. government issues only 5,000 visas per year for unskilled laborers. Yet 300,000 undocumented people are absorbed into the workforce each year. Studies show that the demand for low-skill labor is met by illegal aliens — jobs that U.S. citizens won’t take. The Urban Institute found that between 2000-2005, the total number of low-wage American workers declined by approximately 1.8 million while the number of unskilled immigrant workers increased by 620,000, thus offsetting the total decline by about a third.

While the Obama administration has called for comprehensive immigration reform, the only real activity over the last two years has been an increase in deportations — 400,000 last year.

Archbishop Gomez testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy on Jan. 26. “A common theme binds [workplace raids]: the destruction of the family. The sweeping nature of these raids — which have often involved hundreds of law enforcement personnel with weapons — strikes fear in communities, makes it difficult for those arrested to secure basic due process protections, including legal counsel, and all-too-often render children parentless.”

Just solutions

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the USCCB, says legalizing illegals is a net positive. “We want to bring people out of the shadows and have them earn citizenship over time,” he said. “The opposition calls this ‘amnesty.’ Our position is that they aren’t going anywhere. They have no legal protection. Let’s let them fully contribute by paying back taxes, and get in the back of the line for citizenship.”

Some claim that illegals are a drain on the U.S. economy. Last year, for example, Los Angeles spent $600 million on welfare benefits for the children of illegals. At the same time, however, research by the CATO Institute and the President’s Council of Economic Advisors found that the average immigrant pays a net $80,000 more in taxes during their lifetime than they collect in government services.

“Nobody talks about the fact that illegals work and pay taxes,” said Archbishop Gómez. “They pay taxes through the Social Security system — even if there are false cards — and through any product they buy in a store. If you ask them to pay taxes, they are happy to do it.”

American bishops will continue their call for increasing the number of visas for low-skilled immigrants, Archbishop Gómez said. This will help bring people out of the shadows — and help law enforcement focus on those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers and would-be terrorists.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus staff writer.


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