Bishop's Interview: Now is the time to fix broken immigration system

Editor: Comprehensive immigration reform has been an item that the U.S. bishops have been fighting for in our country for many years. Why is this important to us as Catholics?

Bishop Vásquez: The primary and fundamental reason comprehensive immigration reform is important to us is because we value the dignity of each human person, including our immigrant brothers and sisters. Each person is created in the likeness and image of God; therefore, we have to speak out especially when people’s rights are neglected and when their dignity is not respected. There have been many cases when the basic human rights of immigrants have been ignored through human trafficking, physical abuse and injustice in the workplace. Another concern of the church regarding immigration is the separation of families. The U.S. bishops continue to speak out very clearly on these issues.

The current immigration system is broken – the president and Congress have admitted this. Therefore, it is time for our country to address it with great thought and input from many different sources. Comprehensive immigration reform should include a pathway to citizenship for persons already in the U.S. and at the same time we want security for our borders. Undocumented immigrants deserve dignity and respect; the majority of them have come to our country for good reasons. They want to take care of their families. They seek employment in order to care for themselves and their loved ones. Many of them have left their homeland because of oppression or issues of violence. They have come here seeking a better life.

According to recent reports, there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country right now. The question is how we deal with these persons in a just and humane manner. It seems our president and Congress are ready to address this issue. My hope is that our government will develop a plan that provides a fair and just resolution for immigrants.

Editor: What are some of the aspects that the bishops would like to see included in the reform?

Bishop Vásquez: There are five key elements needed for serious immigration reform: 1) a path to citizenship for the undocumented; 2) the preservation and enhancement of family unity, based on the unit of a husband and wife and children; 3) the creation of legal channels for unskilled laborers to enter and work legally in this country; 4) due process rights for immigrants; and 5) constructive attention to the root causes of immigration, such as economic hardship, political oppression or religious persecution in the sending countries. These cover different aspects, but they are integral to addressing this country’s current immigration problems.

The details of the plan for immigration reform have to be worked out in a bipartisan manner. I am hopeful our lawmakers will be able to come to a compromise that will benefit the majority of immigrants.

A major consideration of immigration reform must be maintaining family unity. We don’t want husbands and wives to be separated from their children. We want families to stay together. There are many instances where children are born in this country, but their parents were born in another country, and presently our government insists that the parents be deported and the children can stay. However this creates difficulties, especially for the very young. Who will care for and provide for them?

Another aspect that must be considered is how children who are born in the U.S. will adapt if they are forced to return with their parents to a country that is not their own. In many cases, children have been born and raised here, and they have very little connection with the country that is their parents’ homeland. We must find ways to address the needs of families with immigration reform.

We also need to create legal opportunities for unskilled laborers to enter our country. It is obvious that a great majority of undocumented immigrants are here willing to do work that others don’t desire to do. Jobs such as cleaning hotel rooms, or landscaping, or picking fruits and vegetables, or other hard labor jobs do not require certain skill sets, yet are important to our economy. Therefore, there must be some legal possibility of unskilled laborers coming to this country so that these jobs are filled.

Immigration reform must also ensure that the rights of the immigrants are maintained. Our laws should protect immigrants from abuse. Periodically I hear about workers who labor for many hours only to have their employer refuse to pay the wage they agreed upon. If the immigrants complain, they are threatened with deportation. These types of injustices must be addressed in comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration reform must also address the root causes of migration. Why do people leave their home country? Our country should work with other countries to resolve some of these issues, so people will want to stay in their own country.

Editor: For years, immigration has been a hot topic and it is highly controversial. Why do you think this raises the ire of so many?

Bishop Vásquez: After the tragedy of Sept. 11, the issue of securing our borders became more intensely recognized. The safety and security of our people are always essential, and we must protect our country from terrorists. At the same time, I think there is a false understanding that the majority of undocumented people who are living in our country desire to harm us or they seek to undermine our country.

We must remember that this country was founded by immigrants from different parts of the world, who were seeking a new life. Many of our great grandparents came here and fully integrated into the culture. When a person immigrates to another country, research shows that within several years they adapt to the new culture: they learn the language and they contribute to society. They become fully integrated, just as our ancestors did.

I also think there is a double standard that has been set in our country. As a government, we say everyone must follow the legal process to come to the U.S., yet at the same time, there are many businesses who are employing undocumented people because they are willing to do certain types of work that others do not wish to do. The undocumented are doing work that everybody appreciates because no one else wants to do it.

Immigration is a highly controversial topic, there seems to be a change in our country and our lawmakers seem more willing to propose immigration reform at this time. The U.S. bishops are hopeful that ensuing immigration legislation will take into respect the five points that I have mentioned above. We hope the end result is immigration reform that will be for the good of all.

Editor: What is your response to those who do not agree with the bishops?

Bishop Vásquez: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an excellent web site: www.justiceforimmigrants.org, where people can learn more about the need for immigration reform. Also, study documents from Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI about welcoming the stranger, as well as Catholic social teaching on immigration.

I also believe it is helpful for people to research their own family history and background. Most, if not all of us, are descendents of immigrants. The Catholic Church played an important role in this country in reaching out to our ancestors who were immigrants and valuing their cultural heritage. The church celebrated Mass, offered religious education, provided Catholic schools and celebrated the sacraments in their native language. So we should each take the time to look into our own family history and discover our family’s journey.

When we get to know immigrants on a personal level, it is amazing what happens. When we communicate on a one-on-one basis, we realize how similar we are. All of us love and value our family; we have hopes and dreams; and we have faith. This leads us to discover our common dignity as humans.

Editor: What is your prayer for comprehensive immigration reform?

Bishop Vásquez: My prayer is that our government officials will truly listen to the voice of God and of the many people who are advocating comprehensive immigration reform. I also pray for the undocumented that one day they will be fully integrated into our society and participate in all aspects of American culture. This land was built on the hard work and commitment of many immigrants and these men and women are also forming and shaping this country. They provide much hope for us as a nation.

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