I often turn to Scripture in times of great antipathy. With the current stagnation of immigration reform in mind, I look to the book of Matthew, when Jesus calls upon us to “welcome the stranger,” saying, “what you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Mt: 25-35, 40). As I reflect on the word “stranger,” I realize that this word is all-encompassing of people in my life. These “strangers” are my neighbors, church members, teachers, allies, advocates, and friends. As Catholics, we are taught that all of us have an equal seat at God’s table – so why, I wonder, do people hold a fear in their hearts of these so-called “strangers” among us?
The U.S. government reflects that fear when it delays relief that would allow 11 million undocumented individuals a pathway to citizenship. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, 87% of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform. To clarify, comprehensive immigration reform does not mean “amnesty” or an “open border” policy, but a fair and legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. It is evident, both from the statistical analysis and human faces of immigration, that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed immediately.
The stories I often hear are very similar. A father, the sole breadwinner of the family, is deported, leaving his wife and children with only one income to keep them above the poverty line. A child, whose mother is going through immigration hearings, is unable to concentrate in school due to panic attacks caused by the worry of possibly not seeing her mother again. A student, who came to the United States at five years of age and only speaks English, is unable to apply for student loans for college and is under constant fear of being deported. A worker who is exploited, overworked and underpaid, because she does not have a visa, pays taxes but is not afforded the benefits of a tax paying citizen. Stories like this go on and on.
Although there have been small victories and close wins for comprehensive immigration reform, Congress has not been successful in passing any meaningful legislation to implement serious change since the Senate Bill (S.744) passed in 2013. President Obama announced earlier this year that if Congress did not reach an agreement by August recess, he would be forced to take administrative action. Although this is not an ideal solution, the President acknowledged the dire need for reform, and said that he would act if Congress refused to. 136 experts on immigration law recently sent a letter to the President, stating that it is well within his authority to expand relief to immigrants. Now, as I write this in September 2014, that due date has come and gone. The Administration recently stated that they may not take any executive action on comprehensive immigration reform. It is assumed that this decision for further delay is due in part to tough November mid-term elections in Congress.
Although the U.S. government has failed to act, I am heartened by the work of Catholics, especially Columban priests and missionaries throughout the United States, whose ministries meet the needs of migrants, and who advocate in their spare time for the immigrants in their communities. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our interfaith partners, praying for relief for the immigrant community. As Jesus taught us to “welcome the stranger,” we continue to respond to our baptismal call to be welcoming and accepting.