FEW CLASSES of immigrants to these shores except those who arrived aboard the Mayflower have escaped contempt. Who doesn't know the labels given in the past to Italians, Slovaks, Poles, Germans, Irish, Jews, Filipinos, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese and countless others, each in turn. Even a passing acquaintance with the early history of New York City gets the blood boiling in anyone with a shred of decency. Are we again in grave danger of repeating some of our historic outrages toward immigrants?
I have at least a general understanding of the complexities involved in trying to design equitable legislation and reasonable public policy in regard to immigration. I am equally aware that a number of government executives are trying to achieve such goals. What concerns me, however, is the apparent “climate” within which legislation and public policy are being formulated. In my judgment, we are dangerously close to a pervasive climate of deep-seated contempt for the human person.
This is not a Republican-Democratic, conservative-liberal thing, and the answer cannot be found in slogans, nor, certainly, in politics as usual. Let it be said unequivocally: Every single piece of legislation or public policy must be rooted in the unambiguous conviction that every man, every woman, every child, of every culture, of every race, of every color, of every ethnic background, of every religion is made in the image of God, hence, sacred. No legislation, court decision or regulation may deprive any person of the God-given right to live in dignity. Immigration status may never be used to deny anyone of the moral right to the basic necessities of life.
The nature of the human person must be the starting point of any responsible approach to immigration. This is why the Archdiocese of New York provides every service to immigrants we can reasonably provide.
Pastoral services are offered in 27 different languages. (Masses are celebrated in 30.) Professional counseling and legal representation on immigration matters are offered in 15 languages: English, Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, German, Cambodian, French, Cantonese, Tagalog, Polish, Mandarin, Futonese, Italian, Korean, Creole.
More than 85 percent of immigrants come to the United States legally, 72 percent of them to join close family members. Immigrants, in fact, pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Legal and undocumented immigrants combined pay some $70.3 billion per year in taxes, while receiving $42.9 billion in such services as education and public assistance.
Perhaps most shocking of all for those repelled by the alleged laziness of immigrants and their being a burden on the welfare roles is that working-age immigrants use welfare at a lower ratio, 3.9 percent, than Americans born here, at 4.2 percent. Do immigrants automatically destroy neighborhoods? The National Immigration Forum asserts the contrary about New York. “City planners say immigrants brought indirect urban renewal, and that without immigration, New York would have about 1 million fewer people and the kind of derelict, abandoned neighborhoods plaguing [certain] other major centers.…” The Washington Post and others credit the revival of dying neighborhoods in New York City to Asian, Latino, Caribbean, Russian, Jewish and Irish immigrants.
If I understand recently approved federal legislation, most noncitizens could lose eligibility for food stamps and other key benefits in the future. Government statistics indicate that 124,000 New York state immigrants— approximately 60 percent of whom are elderly and 40 percent disabled—are vulnerable to losing key benefits because of this new legislation. The ban on benefits goes beyond those traditionally defined as “welfare” to include such programs as preventive health care, prenatal care and others. Does fundamental respect for the human person not require a safety net, a transitional support system?
Would it be too much to ask, in the name of basic human decency, that perhaps a year from now, when the tumult and the shouting of a political campaign have mercifully faded, a nonpolitical analysis can be made of our approach to immigration? In the meanwhile, could not responsible authorities at each level of government significantly delay or even suspend application of the more draconian measures in recently approved legislation? Please God. In any event, however, the Church in New York will continue to do everything it can for those deprived of the benefits essential to human dignity, and even increase its efforts. For the Church is haunted by the question asked of Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” The answer given in the beautiful story of the Good Samaritan seems to us to be suspiciously close to a responsible formula for the treatment of more than a few of our brother and sister immigrants.
Cardinal John O'Connor is Archbishop of New York. Reprinted with permission from Catholic New York.