There’s still hope for immigration reform this year

Every day seems to bring some news that comprehensive immigration reform is either “dead for this year,” or “very likely to happen.”

Republican leadership in the House of Representatives continues to indicate that something will be moving forward; but then it backtracks, only to then indicate again the following week that something is in the works.

Still, there is strong hope that a comprehensive reform package will be passed in 2014 that will bring out of the shadows at least some of the approximately 11 million undocumented persons living in this country and put them on the path to citizenship. It is possible that, after the primary season or during the lame-duck session after the elections, the political climate will be hospitable for moving legislation forward.

A moral imperative

On April 1 of this year, Catholic bishops from around the country gathered at the U.S.-Mexican border for a Mass at Nogales, Ariz., to remember the souls of the more than 6,000 people who have died in the desert since 1998 seeking to enter America and escape poverty and ruthless violence, as well as reunite with their families.

Those 6,000 lost represent a very painful reminder of the human consequences of a broken immigration system — a system that deports approximately 1,100 persons per day, totaling almost two million since 2008. The cost of these deportations runs to almost $5 billion per year.

Clearly, the human and financial costs of this broken system are staggering and require action now — not next year. This window of opportunity is unlikely to last.

We need our congressional representatives to show leadership and move our country forward toward a reasonable and just solution.

Not ‘amnesty’

Contrary to critics, comprehensive immigration reform is not and does not resemble “amnesty.” In the reform package already passed by the U.S. Senate, aspiring citizens must follow a rigorous, 13-year process that, only upon successful completion, will allow them to have the opportunity to obtain citizenship.

The process includes, among other things, paying back taxes and multiple sets of fines, demonstrating good moral character and staying out of crime, as well as learning English and demonstrating knowledge of American civics.

Similarly, advocacy for immigration reform does not constitute advocacy for “open borders.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does support enforcement provisions in any final legislative package, particularly a workable employer verification system. And, it does not oppose border enhancements, which should be coupled with an increase in visas for low-skilled workers, so that they can enter safely and legally.

Interim measures possible

Though immigration reform has not passed, steps can be taken in the meantime to safeguard the dignity of aspiring citizens.

The USCCB continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security, urging it to modify (not abandon) its enforcement practices.

For example, the USCCB has called on DHS to 1) practice prudent prosecutorial discretion, taking into account the ways in which deportation may separate children and families; 2) end the use of methods that exclude due process protections, especially with regard to those who have no criminal offenses and have built equities in this country; 3) reform deportation policies to ensure that those who are returned are safe; 4) expand community-based alternatives to detention programs for those without serious criminal offenses; and 5) expand “know your rights” programming in detention facilities.

Legislatively, Congress should end the “bed quota” requiring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain 34,000 people each day, thereby foregoing less expensive yet equally effective alternatives. The fiscal irresponsibility of the law, combined with the human cost of requiring detentions no matter what mitigating factors are involved, should make removing this provision a key interim step for Congress to take.

At the state level, Minnesotans should be encouraging their elected officials to allow undocumented persons to receive provisional driver’s licenses (HF 348) that would allow them to do basic things we all take for granted, such as going to the store and attending church. A provisional license will also enhance worker mobility and create safer roads for everyone by ensuring applicants have the skills to drive.

What you can do

Contact your congressperson and state legislators today about these important policy reforms, as well as pray and fast in solidarity with those who have braved difficult journeys and have suffered much to attain a better life for themselves and their families.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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