WASHINGTON — “Americans are not divided by the immigration issue. Politicians use the issue to divide Americans.”
That bold statement by Ali Noorani, executive director of the lobby group Forging a New Consensus on Immigrants and America, opened the organization’s Dec. 4-5 “National Strategy Session” in Washington.
Forging Consensus is unique in that it has brought together “Bibles, badges and business” — that is, religious leaders, law enforcement and business people — who have general agreement on what immigration reform should look like to advocate for reform. Two hundred and fifty of them were at the Washington meeting, many of whom had participated in preparatory regional forums.
The Forging Consensus initiative has organized around three points of agreement: to deal honestly with aspiring citizens by creating a road to lawful status; to modernize the nation’s immigration laws so that future immigration of workers and families is legal, fair and orderly; and to recognize the need for safety and security on American borders and within American communities.
The gross dysfunction of the current immigration system was noted graphically by Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, an organization often associated with the evangelical left.
“There are two signs at the border,” he said, “One says: ‘No Trespassing.’ The other says: ‘Help Wanted.’” Wallis urged the country to “stop accepting this broken, corrupted system.”
For Sheriff Mark Curran Jr. of Lake County, Ill., coming to the Forging Consensus position was a matter of gradual conversion. In his case, he said, it grew out of conversations with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, which gradually helped him to come to a deeper understanding of how immigration reform and pro-life efforts are both part of the consistent ethic of life.
Steve Case, co-founder of America Online, provides a business perspective. Case thinks it is possible that the big-business community will get behind the effort a little later, after the current fiscal issues are resolved.
“Once you get the fiscal path clearer, then you can build consensus. If people are talking past each other, the business community won’t jump in,” he predicted. “This is a third-rail issue, and unless there is momentum and a bipartisan consensus, business won’t jump in.”
The U.S. Bishops
Forging Consensus is the result of two years of work by the National Immigration Forum, a think tank founded in 1982. But the U.S. bishops have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform for decades, most recently at last month’s general assembly in Baltimore.
In 2005, the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States issued a joint statement, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” which articulated Catholic principles of immigration reform.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that placed a guest under the protection of those who receive him” (2241).
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network (CLINIC), served on the host committee of the Forging Consensus strategy session.
Bishop Soto noted that the Catholic Church has always been an immigrant Church and that fair treatment of immigrants is part of a consistent life ethic. “The broken immigration system has fragmented families and divided Americans,” he said. “Immigration reform is about making families and America whole.”
“Our country can no longer accept the toil-and-sweat equity of undocumented workers while at the same time scapegoating them, dividing their families and denying them basic protections. This is the moral issue our nation and our elected officials must confront in the months ahead.”
“A good number of us are active on this,” Bishop Soto told the Register, referring to his brother bishops and the immigration issue. “We welcome this coming together.”
How It Started
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City played a key role in launching the new Forging Consensus movement — though, at the time, nobody knew it would result.
In 2010, a rogue state employee in Utah leaked a confidential list of 1,200 alleged “undocumented aliens,” stirring up a statewide controversy. At the time, Utah was considering legislation similar to that in Arizona, where the State Bill 1070 requires local police to determine the immigration status of someone who is detained or arrested. Three other provisions of the bill were struck down by the U. S. Supreme Court last summer.
The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce brought together the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, and the Archdiocese of Salt Lake City to try to avoid a re-run of Arizona’s bitter polarization in Utah.
The eventual upshot of that meeting was the Utah Compact, a 250-word declaration that articulated basic principles about utilizing law enforcement to deal with criminal behavior, not civil violations of federal law; keeping families together; and maximizing individual freedom and opportunity.
In short, in the words of Sutherland Institute's president, Paul Mero, who helped author the Utah Compact, immigration policy should respect human dignity.
The Utah Compact was signed in September 2011 by Bishop Wester and numerous other community leaders. Now, there are five pages of signatures at UtahCompact.org. Indiana and Iowa have similar compacts.
The approach underlying the Utah Compact has its critics, of course. Former state Sen. Karen Johnson of Arizona, a family-values conservative, says, “Despite the new packaging, it’s still all about amnesty.”
Another problem is that immigrant groups sometimes make political alliances that antagonize conservatives. For instance, in Maryland in October, the pro-immigration group CASA formed an alliance with homosexual-rights groups to work for the passage of two initiatives on the November ballot: one legalizing same-sex "marriage" and the other making some undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at state universities.
Other critics contend that proponents of immigration reform frequently neglect the underlying dynamics of contemporary immigration. These critics note that more recent immigrants have a high propensity to collect government benefits and remain a permanent burden to taxpayers much more commonly than was the case with earlier immigrant cohorts.
James Edwards of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Immigration Studies notes that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ guidebook “Welcome to the United States” gives extensive information about the myriad welfare programs available to foreigners.
“If immigration is truly to serve the national interest, you must be able to earn enough to carry your own weight,” Edwards said. “No welfare, no taxpayer subsidies, no refundable tax credits, no dependency of any type.”
The last major federal immigration reform was in 1996. President George W. Bush, who was sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, was planning to revisit the issue prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After that, the question of immigration was melded with the topic of national security. Subsequent efforts at major legislation failed to pass Congress, and, in recent years, states have begun taking the matter into their own hands.
What are the chances that this ambitious new coalition will have a chance to influence the legislative process in the near future? They seem quite high, given that President Barack Obama has promised to address immigration reform in this Congress.
Following the strategy session, many of the participants planned to visit their representatives on Capitol Hill.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is one of the spark plugs behind the effort.
“Our goal is to get the Republican Party to change its mind on immigration,” said Shurtleff, who is a Republican. “Stop the anti-immigrant rhetoric and pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
During the recent presidential campaign, during which GOP candidate Mitt Romney focused his immigration policy on stronger enforcement of existing laws and protecting the border, Shurtleff said, “I kept telling Romney, 'You’re wrong on this; you’re with the wrong group [of advisers on immigration policy]. Distance yourself from them. Mainstream conservatives don’t want the current broken and dysfunctional immigration system.'”
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and leader of the Forging Consensus effort, is confident that the American people want the kind of just solution the initiative endorses.
Land agreed with Utah’s Shurtleff that the current political landscape could provide the impetus to make immigration reform a truly bipartisan initiative.
“If the Republican Party wants to be a contender for leadership of the country, it is going to find it in its own enlightened self-interest to embrace reality on this,” Land said, referring to the negative image the GOP has acquired with many Latino voters in the recent campaign because of its immigration policies.
“The people are way ahead of their elected representatives on this,” Land said. “The thing to do is to forge a coalition of the middle.”
Connie Marshner writes from Arlington, Virginia.