‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ — Why we need immigration reform Print
Making a Difference
Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013 -- 12:00 AM
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Thirty-five-years ago when Annunciation House — a sanctuary and home of hospitality that has served over 100,000 refugees, homeless poor, and undocumented workers — was started in El Paso, Texas, founding director Ruben Garcia and a few friends wanted to place themselves among the poor, to see where the poor would lead them.

He said, “They took us to the undocumented — the most vulnerable.”

On the lowest rung

Garcia explained to me that since the undocumented have no legal status in the United States, they are forced to take undesirable, poorly paid jobs, which offer no benefits. Unlike poor U.S. citizens, undocumented workers and their families cannot receive food stamps, Medicaid, or housing assistance. They are at the lowest rung of American life.

So why do they come? They come because most often they and their families are extremely poor, and they cannot find jobs in their native countries that pay a living wage. The U.S. has many more low-skilled jobs than there are Americans who are willing to take them.

But why don’t they enter legally? Because there are too few low-skilled visas available.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me only 5,000 permanent resident visas and approximately 106,000 temporary worker visas are issued per year for foreign low-skilled workers.

Yet, he said that before the current recession 500,000 workers every year came to the U.S. and found jobs.

Therefore, millions of foreign workers must secretly and dangerously — moving through deserts and facing drug gangs — cross the border to fill vacant American jobs in order to support their very poor families.

Appleby said, “The current system is a mess.”

Cleaning up the system

But there is hope that this mess can soon be cleaned up — at least somewhat.

The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” (S.744) would allow approximately 11 million undocumented migrants to come out of the shadows of second-class existence by providing provisional legal status and protection from deportation and worker exploitation. And it would open a path toward permanent residency and citizenship — after waiting 10 and 13 long years respectively.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports this bill, said Appleby. But they need our help to get it passed into law.

The bill has passed the Senate, but it is still being considered by the House of Representatives. Please e-mail and call (Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121) your House representative urging them to co-sponsor and vote for the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”

Welcoming strangers

Blessed Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) wrote, “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.”

Garcia asked that I raise the following questions on behalf of the undocumented: “Should undocumented immigrants have to live in an underground world? Is it right to use closed borders for the purpose of exploiting cheap labor? Why is it so acceptable to have undocumented workers perform the jobs few Americans are willing to do — pick our fruits and vegetables, wash dishes, and work in meat slaughterhouses?"

Lord Jesus, heal our nation’s indifference, and inspire us to welcome these strangers as valuable members of your one human family, so that on the Day of Judgment we may gladly hear you say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Tony Magliano is a nationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist.