Comprehensive Immigration Reform


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President Barack Obama’s newest executive order, which will provide temporary legal status to about 5 million immigrants residing in the United States without legal status, has ignited a firestorm.

The passionate response from people on all sides of the immigration debate — political leaders, immigration activists, Catholic bishops and ordinary Americas — reflects a pent-up frustration with Washington’s failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

A generation ago, U.S. lawmakers could carry out immigration reform with less controversy.

In 1986, Congress passed legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan that gave legal status to about 3 million undocumented people who had arrived in the country before 1982. Later, when critics charged that the law broke up families by deporting spouses and children who could not meet the threshold, the Reagan administration announced that minor children of parents who received amnesty would also remain in the country.

Years later, again without much pushback, President George H.W. Bush allowed approximately 1.5 million close relatives of those legalized under the 1986 immigration overhaul to remain in the country.

Yet today, partisan gridlock in Washington has allowed a broken U.S. immigration system to yield an unjust and unreasonable status quo — 11 million undocumented immigrants without efficient means of legalization, while the nation’s borders remain porous. People desperate to stake out a better life for their families generally find it much easier to break our immigration laws than to follow them.

The U.S. bishops have long supported multipronged changes to immigration laws that include earned legalization for immigrants already in the United States, reforming the means for legal immigration, such as increasing temporary worker programs, and more expediently handling family-based visas, while also addressing root causes of migration in the countries of origin.

Many bishops have witnessed firsthand the struggles of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and thus Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles was among a number of Church leaders who reacted to the president’s executive order.

“I am happy that some temporary relief is being offered to help parents and children who right now are living in daily fear that their families will be broken up by arrests and deportations,” said Archbishop Gomez in a statement.

But Archbishop Gomez also emphasized the need for broader, permanent relief for immigrant families.

“Too many families are being torn apart by deportations, uncertainty about their status and delays in our visa process that can take years, even decades. Too many men and women who are immigrants are being exploited in the workplace and forced to live in society’s shadows.”

However, the intense reaction to Obama’s executive order across the country also reflects additional concerns about how his policy shift will affect border security, competition for low-wage jobs and increase the likelihood that more people will quickly join the ranks of undocumented immigrants in search of a better life in the United States.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who had co-sponsored bipartisan legislation in 2013, now argues that the first step for reforming the system is to regain control over the U.S. border. “We need immigration reform. But the right way to do it is to first bring illegal immigration under control by securing the borders and enforcing the laws, then modernizing our legal immigration system,” said the senator in a statement.

The strong response to the president’s move also signals a widespread belief in some quarters that the executive order is merely a political tactic designed to secure the loyalty of Latino voters without actually reforming a broken system.

Some have also insisted that Obama’s executive order went much further than the unilateral policies adopted by Reagan or Bush, whose executive actions involved smaller numbers of people and were linked to legislation passed by Congress.

“Bush Sr. took the action that he did, but it wasn’t as if Congress was legislating anything to the contrary,” Carl Hampe, a former aide of then-Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who worked on immigration reform efforts, said in an AP interview. “What’s different now is that there is no clear path to legislative relief for the class of beneficiaries for which the president’s order would provide relief.”

Despite such criticisms, there are signs that some Republican leaders want GOP House members to set aside their opinions about Obama’s executive order and return to the urgent business of passing legislation that could help millions of people secure permanent legal status and also put resources at the border.

Jeb Bush, the former GOP governor of Florida and a possible 2016 presidential hopeful, called on “Republican leaders in Congress to act. We must demonstrate to Americans we are the party that will tackle serious challenges and build broad-based consensus to achieve meaningful reforms for our citizens and our future.”

This sober call for responsible, even courageous leadership on Capitol Hill strikes the right tone in our often-muddled political debate on a complex issue. We can’t allow partisan score-settling to justify inaction. Our representatives in Congress will move forward if we let them know that comprehensive immigration reform is a priority for people on both sides of the debate, and there will be consequences if they fail to produce a bill.    

Every U.S. Catholic has a stake in securing comprehensive immigration reform. Many of us are first-, second- or third-generation Americans. We remember the stories handed down from parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who fled wartime violence, persecution and famine or who simply sought a more stable future. Yes, many of them arrived here with a legal status, but that was a different time, when applicants did not face years of waiting.

Our lives are secure, and many of us have tasted the fruits of the American dream. But others still live in uncertainty, burdened with the daily fear that their families will be torn apart.

As we confront the plight of immigrant people, who often are brothers and sisters in our Catholic faith, we should pray and work to change the failed system, with the ultimate goal of making it easier for every would-be immigrant to follow our laws.

“As a nation, all of us — not only our leaders — have a responsibility,” said Archbishop Gomez. “We cannot turn our heads and continue to look the other way while our brothers and sisters need our help. We all need to work together — citizens, faith communities, government agencies and elected officials.”