by Fr. Jim Betzen, C.PP.S., Leadership Team Member
Last year, millions of people watched as attempts were made to reform our immigration system. Unfortunately, it did not happen. I would like to address the misunderstandings of immigration reform and why it is vital for our country to address this issue.
I have worked with Mexican and El Salvadorian families in Sedalia, Missouri for the past 9½ years. During this time, I have celebrated weddings and baptisms of adults who asked me to not use their real names, but rather their aliases. I have known families where the head and wage earner of the family has been deported, leaving the spouse and children to struggle economically. Hispanics have been arrested for driving withouta driver’s license. I have known Hispanics who are victims of auto accidents and fear being deported. Taxes are deducted from their paychecks but they are not allowed benefits.
Immigrant families have been in our community for over 15 years; many came to work in the Tyson chicken plant. Many work in construction, janitorial jobs, lawn care, and restaurants. Some have small businesses—mostly restaurants and small stores. Their U.S. born children go to public schools as well as our Catholic school. The number of Hispanic children and youth has increased significantly in Sacred Heart School in the last three years. The immigrant populations of Sedalia and La Monte have improved the economy of Pettis County. Simply put, immigrant families are an integral part of our community of Sedalia. Some of these families are part of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country.
The problem is not with the families. The problem is with our immigration system. Other than Native Americans, the United States is a country of immigrants, and immigration has always been a vital part of our economy. Immigrants have worked and continue working in low skill jobs. However, the number of visas available for workers and their families is too low for those arriving. Roughly one million immigrants enter the country as lawful permanent residents, most based on family or employment relationships, but 4.6 million more have applications pending. Without permanent or temporary visas available, and the path to citizenship taking up to 15-20 years, many immigrants take the risk of coming undocumented. They do this to find jobs, feed their families and better their lives.
Instead of asking if immigrants are legal, we should ask if our immigration laws are moral. When a country of immigrants denies access to immigrants who are refugees from violence and poverty, we must ask if this is moral.
To reform our immigration system, I think we need to overcome our fear of immigrants first. After 9/11, there is a greater fear of foreigners in our country. Hate groups have directed their attention away from our minorities and toward immigrants. Immigrants come from all over the world; less than one-third are from Mexico. Today they come from Europe, Asia and Africa. Most immigrants are neither terrorists, nor members of drug cartels, nor cheap labor that takes away our jobs. They are families like our families who immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, freedom and stability. Their presence among us improves our economy as they work in low skill jobs in our society. Immigrants are also younger than our general population.
With immigration reform, I see three issues. One issue is securing our border with Mexico. Another is reforming the process which future immigrants become naturalized citizens. The third issue is creating a process where 11 million immigrants presently living and working in our country can become citizens. I would like to address this third issue of immigration.
Much has been done in our country in the name of homeland security, such as increasing border patrol, airline security and improving identification of citizens.
I think the next step is documenting all the undocumented immigrants living here. The sooner these 11 million undocumented immigrants become citizens, the safer our country will be. The path to citizenship will encourage immigrants to learn English and allow them to live within the law, which they cannot do without documents. This path to citizenship may seem a challenge to our society, but I see it as an opportunity that we should take. It will better our country and all our lives.