(by Most Rev. Donald J. Kettler)
July 26, 2014
Misconceptions in the area of immigration policy, like in other areas of life, often lead to lack of understanding, resentment and unwillingness to compromise. As people of faith, we must open not only our hearts, but our minds to see the whole story.
It is time to understand the past, acknowledge the failings of our current immigration system, and pass needed reform for the future.
As the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud, I have heard wonderful stories of how a family’s ancestors came to this country and settled in this area. I am told how they arrived with nothing, worked hard and built the family business or started the family farm that is still in operation today.
These stories are filled with pride about their immigrant ancestors’ accomplishments. However, often those stories lead to comments about current immigration policy and tend to paint today’s immigrants in an unfair light.
The most common comments are, “Why don’t they come here legally? Why don’t they get in ‘line’ with the rest of the immigrants seeking to enter lawfully? If our ancestors did it, why can’t they?” All sincere questions, but because of misconceptions, they are not necessarily the right questions to be asking.
When many of our ancestors came to this country in the 1800s and early 1900s, there were little or no restrictions on immigration. Until the 1870s, the federal government did virtually nothing to restrict immigration and, even then, it was narrowly focused on Chinese laborers. It was not until the 1920s, by which time most of our Midwestern ancestors had arrived, that Congress began to clamp down on immigrants from other areas of the world.
Historically speaking, most of them never waited in a “line,” or had much in the way of documentation, let alone had to navigate complex and restrictive immigration laws. They simply arrived here, settled where they wanted to, started a new life, and became citizens after a relatively short period of time.
Our ancestors had very few hurdles to jump over to become Americans. They were simply allowed to come in and, once here, were expected to be good citizens and contribute to their community. For almost the first 150 years of our nation, a time of great expansion, prosperity and creativity, we welcomed immigrants and wove them into the fabric of America.
Restrictions on immigration have gradually tightened, and beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, we see a very different immigration system than our ancestors knew.
We no longer have a system that works and is humane; we have a system that is broken and harsh. The current humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children fleeing to the U.S./Mexican border due to the violence in their countries of origin is a stark reminder of this.
Today’s system does not proudly welcome the immigrant. The unaccompanied children — as young as 5 years old — at the border are being “greeted” with hostility and near chaos. And, our current immigration system has long criminalized and shamed the immigrant, after he was lured, often by Americans and our businesses, to exploit his labor.
Our system does not support the family and build community. It does not open America to new cultures and ideas; it closes it off. It does not offer opportunity and encourage hard work; it offers a substandard life for certain “classes” of people and encourages dishonesty. It does not even offer a “line” to wait in to immigrate legally.
We need changes
Today’s immigration laws are so restrictive that it is very difficult for all but a handful of new immigrants to come to our country. This is not the immigration system that our ancestors would have found acceptable and neither should we. The American people deserve better.
In order to have a future immigration system worthy of our past, we must pass comprehensive reform that includes:
• An earned legalization program for foreign nationals of good moral character to obtain lawful permanent residence;
• Policies that keep families together
• A foreign-born guest worker program;
• A mechanism for the restoration of immigrants’ due process rights;
• A meaningful effort to address the root cause of migration;
• A plan for securing our borders and the humane enforcement of our immigration laws going forward.
A plan that my brother bishops and I believe satisfies these criteria already has been passed by the U.S. Senate. Though not perfect, the comprehensive immigration reform package will offer millions of people the opportunity to earn citizenship and become full members of our communities.